The American Sign Language Club made its debut at Ramapo College by educating the community about deaf culture during an event associated with Disability Awareness Month.
“We believe in more than fighting the stigma. We want to push for equality and respect,” said junior Kira Abrams, president of ASL Club. “We hope to achieve an environment where [having a] disability is seen as a different and equally valid way of navigating the world. Where a person who requires some accommodations to do well in an environment structured specifically for the typical type of person is just as worthy of respect and is not lesser for getting necessary help to achieve equality.”
To achieve this vision of equality, teaching society about deaf culture and its significance to members of the community is essential. Similar to other cultures but rooted in the shared experience of hearing loss, deaf culture is a set of beliefs, values and ideas pertaining to the community.
In place of tone of voice, facial expressions are central to conveying emotions. The bluntness of the language, which may seem offensive at first, reflects the tight-knit deaf community that relies on each other for information.
“A common misconception of deaf culture is that people who are deaf are not proud of being deaf and view it as a disability,” said sophomore Samantha O’Grady, vice president of ASL Club. “In deaf culture, deafness is just viewed as a cultural market and something that simply makes you different.”
Providing a preview of what future events hosted by ASL Club will look like, the organizers spent some time discussing pressing issues in the deaf community such as the ongoing debate about whether or not to teach deaf children sign language. Parents are apprehensive about teaching their children sign language, in fear that they will never learn to speak orally. Others encourage children to learn the language so that they can communicate easily with people in the deaf community.
“It’s debated about what is better for deaf children because some people think it’s better to just integrate them into hearing schools where they may not have that much access to their own language, but if you’re more used to being around hearing people, you’ll get better at lip reading,” explained Abrams. “But then you’re not as good with learning your birthright language being amongst deaf people and the learning environment doesn’t cater to you in a way that you learn.”
O’Grady briefly described her experience growing up as someone who is hard of hearing, or HoH, and wears hearing aids.
“My mom sent me to a preschool for the deaf but sign language was not taught and we were meant to learn orally. I never learned to speak sign fluently so picking it up later in life is a way to find what I missed out on as a child,” said O’Grady.
The nursing major lives on campus in dorms that accommodate her hearing loss. Because O’Grady does not hear the high pitch fire alarms, a light goes off to alert when there is a drill or an emergency. She also uses a vibrating alarm clock under her pillow to wake her up in the morning.
This insight into how O’Grady’s HoH condition effects her everyday life gave students a deeper understanding of deaf culture.
“The more people are aware of deaf culture, the more respected people who are deaf or HoH will be. There will also be an understanding of cultural barriers that occasionally make communication difficult even if the two parties understand each other,” said Abrams.
Students in attendance were excited to have a chance to interact with the deaf community on campus and learn, or in some cases build upon existing knowledge, sign language.
“There are deaf people all over. I think it’s fascinating to get to know another culture. It gives you a broader perspective,” said junior Kaitlyn McSpedon. “Culture is meant to be shared. Why not learn how to communicate in sign language? Life is about making connections with people. There are so many amazing people out there who just so happen to be deaf. Why not bridge the gap between hearing and deaf people?”
As the ASL Club begins to spread its roots on campus and join the handful of other organizations at Ramapo, it hopes to host future events that draw attention to issues within the deaf community, educate the public about the deaf community and teach the community basic signs that will break down communication barriers.
“I hope the sign language club will become an environment where people not only work on their skills or start learning sign language, but a place where a strong accepting community is developed,” said O’Grady.