OCEAN CITY — Angela Martinez signed up to learn sign language at Ocean City High School just because she was curious, but she started thinking of it as a career path when she began to lose her own hearing.

The senior from Petersburg in Upper Township is seeing a specialist to determine why she recently started to become deaf in her left ear, which she said might stem from a case of childhood meningitis.

The issue stirred her interest, and she is taking a third year of American Sign Language as an independent study course, with plans of continuing her education in college and eventually becoming an interpreter or teacher.

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Her story is unique, but she is not the only ASL student at the school who first registered on a whim and eventually decided to make it a vocation. Several have found a passion for the language and the culture behind it, which is only taught at a few high schools statewide.

“If I could do something like what Mrs. Andersen does, that would be great,” Martinez said.

She was referring to her teacher, Amy Andersen, of Cape May Court House, who is in her ninth year teaching sign language at the school. Andersen now has 138 students in five classes.

All those students can hear but chose to take sign language instead of the Spanish, French, Italian, Greek and Latin language courses also offered at the school.

“A lot of students finish the course and say that besides learning the signs and the language it’s opened their eyes to a world they didn’t even know about,” Andersen said.

The state Division of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing estimates that varying degrees of hearing loss affect 850,000 people in New Jersey, or slightly less than 10 percent of the population.

However, at least half the people who report hearing disabilities do so late in life, typically after the age of 65. Fewer than 1 of every 1,000 is functionally deaf before age 18, according to the Gallaudet Research Institute at Gallaudet University, a federally chartered school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C.

Still, New Jersey has taken several steps in the past 20 years to expand ASL education. In 1996, the state Department of Education added ASL to its accepted world languages for public schools, and in 2004 it added teaching certification requirements for the language.

Vineland is one of the only other high schools in South Jersey that offers sign language courses in addition to Ocean City. About 104 students are enrolled in Vineland’s ASL classes.

“It’s one of those languages a lot of people don’t think about, but it’s a very important language,” said Joanne Negrin, supervisor for language education and performing arts in the Vineland district.

Negrin noted sign language interpreters recently gained notoriety after Lydia Callis, the interpreter for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was briefly in the spotlight for her emotional translating during Hurricane Sandy press conferences. She even inspired a skit on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Both Negrin and Andersen said using facial expressions and body language is a major part of conveying emotion in sign language, almost as much as hands.

“Tone of voice is shown through your signs and face,” Andersen told her students during a recent class.

Like Martinez, several seniors in Ocean City have applied to colleges that give credit for ASL studies to satisfy their foreign language requirements and have thought about majoring in the language.

“It was something that was always beautiful to me,” said Nicole Garrett, a senior ASL student from Corbin City, who has thought about becoming an interpreter for deaf children.

Austin Satinsky, a senior from Beesleys Point in Upper Township, said he has applied to schools with pursuing a career in sign language in mind. He first took both French and Latin, liking neither, but found something special about ASL.

He enjoys acting and performing, which is fortunate because the ASL students at the school perform a song by signing the lyrics during the school’s Christmas concert and they put on their own spring concert.

“Interpreting really is like a performance,” said Satinsky, who hopes to one day join a group like Philadelphia-based Hands UP Productions, which re-interprets famous plays using sign language.

Andersen said most jobs using sign language fall into two categories: teaching, at both regular schools and schools for the deaf, and interpreting, which provides services in fields such as education, law, medicine and now video relay, which allows sign language users to place voice phone calls using an interpreter as a mediator.

Of course, most of the students who take the classes do not make sign language their career path, but Andersen said it still provides insight into what it would be like without the ability to hear. Students are not allowed to speak during class after the first half of the introductory course, and they even wear earplugs so they are not tempted.

Students like Martinez also go to what are called “deaf socials” in the area, such as at the Hamilton Mall, where the hearing impaired meet and talk. Martinez went to improve her skills, but she said she has met friends at the events.

In the past, ASL students have had to act deaf for a full day, refusing to speak even outside Andersen’s class, and writing notes to teachers and friends in other classes or during breaks.

“It gives them the feeling of what it is to be a minority,” Andersen said, “and a lot of them say that when they come back to this class and are able to talk to other people again, they say it feels like coming home.”

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