By Jaden Wilson
Bentley Bryant is an ASL-teaching, music-loving, Texas native who brings Syracuse’s deaf community together every Friday evening.
“Deaf Coffee” is a national deaf social event that dedicates itself to providing a safe space for deaf people to socialize. Bryant is the host and creator of Deaf Coffee in Syracuse, which meets at 6 p.m. Fridays at different Panera Bread locations across the region.
Walking into Panera on a recent Friday, it’s easy to spot Bryant as she sits at the center of the table, her blue eyes bright with intensity as she signs animatedly to the group surrounding her.
One of those people is Charle Morrow.
“Bentley is the sweetest person I know,” Morrow said. “She is the reason why this is even happening.”
With a huge smile, Bryant introduced herself to me. She signs her name by tightly forming her fingers into the ASL letter for “B” and slightly moves her hand from side to side. I understood because I took sign language in high school, a growing trend in U.S. high schools. ASL is now the third most used language in the United States, after English and Spanish, according to the Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
“I am so happy you are here,” Bryant signed. “We love it when new people start coming.”
Bryant also welcomes Deaf Coffee attendees who do not know ASL. She also makes it clear that Deaf Coffee is not just for deaf people.
“I mean, I wasn’t even born deaf,” Bryant signed. “I got meningitis when I was 3 years old, which caused me to become blind and deaf. For a while I was blind, but my mother prayed for me and I got my sight back. But, my hearing never came back.”
Bryant has no preference on whether people refer to her as deaf or hearing-impaired.
Growing up in Texas, Bryant struggled because she couldn’t communicate well with others. Her parents did not learn how to sign, and she herself didn’t know how to sign until she was in the ninth grade.
“When I started high school I finally got an interpreter,” she signed. “Through my interpreter is how I learned sign language. Before that, I would just write what I wanted to say on a piece of paper.”
Experiences like that inspired Bryant to start Deaf Coffee CNY. In 2004, after Bryant moved to Syracuse from Texas with her husband and two children, she began teaching ASL to deaf children. She would encourage them to go to deaf events to meet other deaf people.
But she realized that there were no deaf social events in the area. “So, I thought, ‘Why not start a Deaf Coffee in Syracuse?’” Bryant signed.
Deaf Coffee has been around for 20 years now and, according to Bryant, has helped educate people about deaf culture. One thing that she tries to make people understand is that being deaf is not a disability.
“We were all either born this way or became this way,” Bryant signed by way of explanation. “We just can’t hear. Can we drive? Yes. Can we communicate? Yes. It’s not like we can’t walk or something. Doctors try to fix us, but we don’t need to be fixed.”