91-year-old sign language teacher dies after going blind

American Sign Language was the obsession of a 91-year-old teacher who died on Saturday after succumbing to complications from pneumonia. R. Allen Gardner taught the deaf for much of his career, specialising in sign…

91-year-old sign language teacher dies after going blind

American Sign Language was the obsession of a 91-year-old teacher who died on Saturday after succumbing to complications from pneumonia.

R. Allen Gardner taught the deaf for much of his career, specialising in sign language for visual impairments, according to the Language Guide to Oregon.

He spent three years at Oregon State University and worked for other schools before opening his own specialised sign language school in 1969.

He tutored visually impaired students for nearly 50 years, before retiring in 2014.

“I was so lucky to have a clientele that was wonderful to deal with and cared about me very much,” Gardner said in an interview posted to his website.

R. Allen Gardner (in black) teaching at OSU (Video: CNN)

Gardner’s two-and-a-half-year-old son, Nolan, is partially sighted and he devoted his early years to teaching visually impaired children in different states.

“People with severe vision impairment will tell you if they learn in the first year, they learn almost completely, and they’ll progress very rapidly, both in thinking skills and speaking skills and interpreting sentences,” Gardner said.

“Then if they drop off in the second year, they need their second year of instruction before they improve all the way to their first grade level.”

Gardner also taught deaf children the sign language for birds, using a sign for a hummingbird and a sign for a crow.

He started teaching sign language to chimpanzees when they arrived at the Oregon Zoo, about a decade ago.

“A different group each week in a different area of the zoo,” he told the Language Guide.

“I was the only teacher at that time and one of them was a chimpanzee named Washoe. She wanted to learn sign language and not all of the animals wanted to be taught sign language, but she was very enthused about it. She was smarter than 99% of the other chimps and she would make her way around wherever I put her.”

“When I started teaching to chimps, I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the fact that most people probably assume that the chimpanzees cannot learn sign language,” Gardner said.

“Just a few months ago, they had some chimpanzees that also wanted to learn sign language and our new sign language teacher is some of the Chimps,” he told the Language Guide.

“While they might never be able to read to a passerby like an 8-year-old child, the animals seem to be able to understand that their sign language teacher wants them to learn and to learn quickly, so they have been very excited to be able to learn sign language and communicate with her.”

Gardner was admitted to a hospice center last week.

-CNN’s Amanda Bynes contributed to this report.

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