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Samuel James Supalla

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Title: Samuel James Supalla  
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Subject: Sign language
Collection: 1957 Births, Deaf Articles Needing Infoboxes, Deaf Culture, Deaf Musicians, Deaf Writers, Living People, People from Pasco, Washington
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Samuel James Supalla

Dr. Samuel James Supalla was born in Pasco, Washington on December 4, 1957. "Although, I really think of myself as being born around December 23rd with the help of my brother, Ted!" [1] His brother Ted had helped with the creation of his name sign, which Samuel did not have till three weeks after his birth. His name sign is signed with "the /S/ handshape moving from one side of the chin to the other" [2] At a very young age, he began appointing name signs for others. Both of his parents were deaf and he had three brothers, two deaf and one hard of hearing. In result, Samuel grew up in a signing and culturally enriched Deaf environment. Sam Supalla is exceptionally notable for his storytelling performances in American Sign Language (ASL), particularly for his narrative in The American Literature Series: For a Decent Living. He is as well an accomplished filmmaker. Dr. Sam Supalla is a Deaf linguist “whose interest lies in the research and English development issues concerning deaf children” [3] and stresses the importance in acquisition of a natural sign language.


  • Early life 1
  • Discovery of Talent 2
  • College Years 3
  • Currently 4
  • Success 5
  • Personal Perspective on Deaf Literature 6
  • References 7

Early life

Before enrolling in school, Samuel’s father would often go to the Deaf Club bringing the whole family along to attend. Samuel himself remembers the old stories and plays that were performed in ASL. The audience at the Deaf Club shared a common fascination for these ASL stories including him. The school that he enrolled into and graduated from was the Oregon School for the Deaf. Throughout all of preschool and elementary, the program itself enforced strong oralism amongst deaf students where signing was not allowed. At that time, oralism was commonly popular in the schools where oral language became the primary mode of instruction over sign language. Although the children were not allowed to sign, they would do so in their dormitories. “I had become a signing model for my peers during the early formative years.” [4] At the Deaf school, children would sometimes go home on the weekends, while some stayed at their dorms. When Sam would go home he would make up stories about and imaginary white horse he had and when he would come back to school he would story tell about it to his friends. But once the students would come and visit his home “they would ask where the white horse was. I would have to lie and tell them that the white horse died. They were disappointed that they never got to saw the white horse”.[5] It was this bogus and imaginary story that had led to the start of his experience in telling stories and had paved the path to his future success as a prominent story teller.

Discovery of Talent

At the age of 15, the Oregon School for the Deaf had been called by Gallaudet University to go to National Association of the Deaf. There was a talent competition in front of an audience of Gallaudet students. After his performance he had won the competition. “From that moment on I realized that many people enjoyed my work and thought this is something I can try to pursue.” [6] It was at this competition that many people had begun to notice his superb and astonishing talent that will then later skyrocket the beginning of his career as a narrative story teller.

College Years

At the end of his high school years he had enrolled at California State University Northridge (CSUN) in 1976 and graduated as a History major. During his college years, he had been called to go to a conference for an entertainment part in American Sign Language research. It was this exact call that had established the start of his professional career. During this period of his life, he would travel for the purpose of doing different live shows/storytelling in front of many audiences. Samuel had worked as a research assistant at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and became fascinated in research projects. His next move then was to apply to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1982 where he did get admitted and majored in education with a concentration in bilingual education. It was at the University of Illinois where he received his Masters and Doctorate degrees.


After graduating from the University of Illinois with a Masters and Doctorate in Education, he had been offered a job from the University of Arizona after he finished his successful dissertation. Samuel then made the decision to take the job offer and moved to Tucson, AZ in 1989. His prime focus at the University is in Disability & Psychoeducational Studies as a prestigious professor. For majoring in the educational/ bilingual education field, his research and concern pushes towards the linguistics needs of deaf children.

Because deaf children come from language minority homes and tend to learn ASL later in life, their linguistic needs are not being met. Even in the educational setting, deaf children’s linguistic needs tend to not be met due to the dominance of oral language. Deaf children tend to be instructed in spoken English in their early years of life; this is where Sam Supalla’s interest in research shifts his focus on. “His original work on how artificial English-based sign systems fail has led to a greater appreciation of American Sign Language (ASL) as a working language in terms of visual perception and processing.” [7]

In reference to his background in bilingual studies, he is concerned with literacy issues regarding the acquisition of learning how to read and write in English. “In the case of deaf children, the need to develop a “mother tongue” (e.g., ASL) is stressed in order to facilitate the learning of a second language (e.g., English) within the context of bilingualism.” [8] Because of this, it sparked an interest in him to create and assess a possible reading program where deaf students who sign can learn to read in English using the correct manner in reference to his bilingual educational beliefs. Samuel also co-founded the Laurent Clerc Elementary School, a charter school in Tucson, Arizona which utilizes his second language learning philosophy.


The Book Of Names Signs: This book written by Deaf Linguist Sam Supalla was published 1992.[9] This text serves to describe in depth the origins of American Sign Language name signing. He has acknowledged a systematic pattern for giving name signs to those within the Deaf community which too includes a list/chart of over 500 name signs. He also discusses the rules of name signing and goes on to express the legitimacy of these names signs in correlation to names given in the hearing community. Name signs are legitimate and function as appropriate names. Name signing is one of the many important components of Deaf culture.

ASLphabet: is a system designed by Dr. Sam Supalla. It is the American Sign Language Dictionary for Kids which consists of over 300 sign words that include symbols such as Handshape, Location, and Movement. It is a website colorfully designed to fit the eyes of children to take interest in; e.g. the bunny and real human with a magic hat. It is a fun, interactive, and educational website where it serves as a “primary source of English for deaf learners “.[10] Sam Supalla has been working on this with the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf.

A Free Hand: Enfranchising the Education of Deaf Children: Sam Supalla as the educated linguist and researcher and others like him had contributed to the collaborative text. He contributed his written part concerning the Equality In Educational Opportunities: The Deaf Versions. The part he contributes to the text discusses “the policy analysis on the notion of reverse mainstreaming and the redefinition of bilingual education for deaf children that is forthcoming.” [11]

ASL Literature Series: For a Decent Living: “The initial release in 1992 of the ASL Literature Series adds significantly to the literary heritage of the deaf community.” [12] It is a story based on the deaf experience starting off with a young man who is raised at a farm with hearing parents and decides to flee his home over to the big city. He then encounters a deaf club through the help of another man. When he first arrives, the deaf club members looked at him with suspicion; mistaking him for a peddler. After finding the truth about him, they kindly welcome him and then begin to ask about job opportunities in the city. The members notify him of many job opportunities but one that caught his attention was the job opening at a factory. Many of them warned the young man about the unlikelihood of hiring a deaf employee there. He persists to take the challenge and goes right to the factory to meet the boss. The boss coincidentally knew fingerspelling and gives the young man the job at the factory. Happily, the young man works at his job and is considered an efficient hard worker. Then one day the young man had an accident at the factory where he had fell into a large hole. He was sent to the hospital and that same day he manages to leave the hospital limping on his way out back to the factory. This quick “recovery” makes an impression on the boss. The young man is seen almost as a deaf hero and is looked upon as a model worker amongst his hearing and deaf counterparts. This narrative is “a composite of stories the narrator/performer “listened to” during childhood, is put together in an original way.[13]

Personal Perspective on Deaf Literature

"Deaf literature is obviously important for a number of reasons. I prefer to use the term ASL literature as it addresses the use of ASL, not English. It is through the sign language that deaf performers like myself can express linguistically in the most authentic and aesthetically possible forms. Hearing performers can participate as long as their work is of high quality. ASL does not have any conventional writing, thus the literary pieces through videotape or DVD work wonders for the public as deaf experiences can be expressed and appreciated. Non-deaf experiences can be part of ASL literature understanding that the piece is done with high aesthetic value. 'For a Decent Living' serves as one example of what I believe is what should be done with ASL literature." [14]


  1. ^ Supalla, Samuel J. (1992). The book of name signs. Berkeley, Calif.: Dawn Sign Press. p. 4.  
  2. ^ Supalla, Samuel J. (1992). The Book of Name Signs. Berkeley, Calif.: Dawn Sign Press. p. 4.  
  3. ^ "Samuel Supalla, Ph.D.". The University of Arizona College of Education. Retrieved 11 December 2011. 
  4. ^ Supalla, Samuel James. "Personal Interview with Sam Supalla". 
  5. ^ Produced; DeBee, directed by James R. (1992). ASL Literature Series: Bird of a Different Feather ; For a Decent Living. San Diego, CA: Dawn Pictures.  
  6. ^ Produced; DeBee, directed by James R. (1992). ASL Literature Series: Bird of a Different Feather ; For a Decent Living. San Diego, CA: Dawn Pictures.  
  7. ^ "Samuel Supalla, Ph.D.". The University of Arizona College of Education. Retrieved 11 December 2011. 
  8. ^ [Hrsg.], Margaret Walworth; Donald F. Moores; Terrence J. O'Rourke (1992). A Free Hand : Enfranchising the Education of Deaf Children. Silver Spring, Md.: T.J. Publishers. p. 172.  
  9. ^ Publications recognized
  10. ^ Supalla, Samuel James. "ASLphabet". The Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf 2009. Retrieved 12 December 2011. 
  11. ^ [Hrsg.], Margaret Walworth; Donald F. Moores; Terrence J. O'Rourke (1992). A free hand : Enfranchising the education of deaf children. Silver Spring, Md.: T.J. Publishers. p. 170.  
  12. ^ Bahan; Supalla, Ben; Samuel; DeBee, directed by James R. (1992). Bird of a different feather ; For a decent living. San Diego, CA: Dawn Pictures. pp. viii.  
  13. ^ Peters, Cynthia (2000). Deaf American literature : from carnival to the canon. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Univ. Press. p. 177.  
  14. ^ Supalla, Samuel James. "Personal Interview with Sam Supalla". 
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