Sign language instructor eager to share her passion

Sign language instructor eager to share her passion

By Flori Meeks

October 8, 2013

The first time Sheila Johnstone saw people communicate in American Sign Language, she was mesmerized.

"I'm a dancer, and it looked like dancing to me," the Tanglewood-area resident said. "It was exquisite to me, and I wanted to learn it."

Johnstone, who has no deaf relatives, learned the language, obtaining the highest proficiency level.

Decades later, she teaches the language as a volunteer.

"I do all of this in the spirit of giving back," Johnstone said. "I love doing this, and I love seeing the smiles on faces when they're able to get their hands in gear."

On Monday, Oct. 14, Johnstone will begin teaching a 10-week ASL class offered by Be An Angel, a north Houston-based nonprofit organization that serves children with multiple disabilities or profound deafness.

Participants will meet 6-7 p.m. Mondays at T.H. Rogers Elementary School, 5840 San Felipe.

The free class is designed for beginners.

Uptown resident Richard Tyler, former board chairman of Be An Angel and current advisory board member, spoke to Johnstone about teaching a class in the area.

"I've known Sheila for a number of years now," he said. "Sheila is superb in her background for American Sign Language. She's passionate about it."

It made sense to offer a program at T.H. Rogers, home to the Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for Houston Independent School District, Tyler said.

And the class could prove valuable to the community as a whole, he said.

"There are a lot of businesses that would like to hire hearing-impaired people, but they don't know how to communicate effectively with them," Tyler said.

Johnstone still finds ASL as beautiful as she did the first time she saw it.

"It's a language of concepts," she said. "You're essentially drawing pictures."

While people can communicate in sign language by spelling out words, the language generally does not correspond word for word with other language.

So, American Sign Language has interpreters but no translators.

The language requires the user to employ a certain amount of emotion in the motions.

Because voice cannot be used to convey urgency or the nuances of a message, the signer communicates them with facial expression and posturing.

"It's not for someone who's very reserved," Johnstone said.

"Most teachers who do what I do spend a few months doing mime in order to get the idea of communicating that way."

Johnstone also teaches English as a second language to the deaf.

Because ASL is so different from other languages – for example, it has no verb tenses – people who communicate with it exclusively miss some intricacies of English language and grammar, Johnstone said, and their reading and writing proficiency can be impacted.

She expects a wide range of students in the class.

"It will be all the way from parents and other relatives of the deaf to people who were fascinated with it like me," she said. "I hope more parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings (of the deaf) will devote time to learning it, because communication is everything."

ASL is one of many interests and passions in Johnstone's life.

In addition to her degree in ASL, the St. Louis native has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in molecular biology. She worked in a laboratory in medical schools at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Miami in Miami, Fla., before creating her own business as a medical/legal research consultant. Her company advised law firms nationwide and offered a records-organizing service named "Order in the Court."

After moving to Houston, Johnstone lectured at the University of Houston Law School and served on the Health/Law Policy Institute Board.

Johnstone also is a dancer and a duo pianist, which is a musician who performs with another pianists. She has played piano on National Public Radio and Houston Public Radio (88.7, KUHF-FM). One of her recordings includes a narration by former First Lady Barbara Bush.

In addition, Johnstone has served on boards and committees for Shepherd School of Music, Houston Symphony League, Leadership Houston, Neighborhood Center, Pan American Round Table, Career and Recovery Resources and the Mayor's Council for Trade and Development.

To register or obtain more information about the American Sign Language class, visit, or contact Marti Boone at [email protected] or 281-219-3313.

More Information
How to talk with hands
What: Free 10-week American Sign Language 10-week course.
When: 6-7 p.m. Mondays starting October 14, 2013
Where: T.H. Rogers Elementary School, 5840 San Felipe
Details: Visit, or contact Marti Boone at [email protected] or 281-219-3313


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