Gary Davis made OU history in 2017 when he became the first full-time American Sign Language instructor at the university. Davis, who is deaf, has made it his goal to not only teach his classes American Sign Language but also teach the OU student body the importance of deaf culture and a strong deaf community.
Once a year, Davis goes to the Shoppes at Northpark mall in Oklahoma City to play Santa Claus for children who are deaf and hard of hearing — something deeply important for representation among deaf children.
In the spirit of the holidays, The Crimson Quarterly sat down with Davis to learn more about one of his favorite days of the year.
How did you start being Santa for deaf children?
My mother, she owned a daycare, and as she tended to have a Christmas celebration, I would do Santa Claus for her daycare. But it wasn’t related to deaf children — it was hearing kids who I was dressing up for. Then in 2015, the Rotary Club was looking for someone to replace their Santa Claus. Somehow, someone gave them my name, and for the first time, they had deaf children coming in and there was a Santa Claus who could communicate with them.
Where was the first location you were Santa Claus?
So, we went ahead and started at (the Shoppes at Northpark mall) in Oklahoma City, and that’s where the children would come together, and that’s what started this special day for deaf and hard of hearing children. They had a hearing Santa for the public, so we picked one day specifically for deaf and hard of hearing children to have a Santa they can communicate with.
What is the routine like when you’re portraying Santa Claus for deaf children?
It’s a little bit different. The standard Santa Claus is the, “Sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas.” I do things a little different. Because of (American Sign Language), we need eye contact, and if they’re sitting on my lap, we can’t really get that. That’s part of deaf culture.
So the child comes up and stands near me or sits next to me on the chair. I ask them what their name is, what they want for Christmas, of course, and if they have a name sign, which is something unique to American Sign Language. Then, they’ll tell me the list of things they want for Christmas. Then, they sit on my lap for a picture.
How do the children react when they get to see a Santa Claus that speaks their language?
The first thing I notice is that the children initially look like they’re about to just see another hearing Santa that they won’t be able to communicate with and all they’ll get is a picture. Then, when they see I’m signing, “Hello,” they’re a little surprised, and they wait to see if I can do more than just greet them, and when they see I can, they’re shocked.
I tell them, “I’m deaf,” and they excitedly tell me that they’re deaf, too. They’re so excited to communicate with Santa without relying on someone else. They just start talking, and they tell me so many things.
As an advocate for the deaf community, how meaningful is this experience for you?
It’s very important. Deaf children are born, and they grow up, and they don’t have a language or a culture, they just live in the hearing world. They have a hearing family, and they don’t see other deaf children sometimes.
I had the same experience they’re going through, and it’s tough. You have some tough years. I want to show them that they do have their own identity, group, language and culture. I want them to feel included. I want them to know they’re not isolated, that there is someone out there just like them.
Any favorite stories from your time as Santa?
I remember there was a 6- or 7-year-old girl, and she had a little bit of an attitude when she came to see me. She was fed up with hearing people and not being able to communicate, and I tried to explain to her that I’m deaf, and I’m just like her. She didn’t believe me.
So I tried to share that I had the same experience and that I grew up deaf just like her. I told her I wasn’t the real Santa Claus but that I was actually deaf. It took her some time, but she came around, and she told me that she wanted her parents to learn sign language. I was stunned — how can Santa Claus gift her that request? I didn’t know how to answer.
I thought about it and told her together we would write a letter to Santa saying that she hoped her parents would learn sign language, and then I told her to put it under her Christmas tree. And maybe her parents would see that letter and change her life and theirs. I don’t know if that happened, but I really hope it was a step in the right direction.
Are you excited to be Santa again this year?
I’m so excited. Since 2015, I’ve noticed all the children who come back and see me again, and they’re all growing up. And now, here we are in 2019. New kids will come, and the older ones have grown. I’m looking forward to December.
We don’t have our dates yet, but I’m hoping the event will continue every year. But it’s only one day — that feels so limited. But something is better than nothing. It’s OK.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.