Deaf and hard of hearing advocates seek inclusion and equity
Movements of the hands and body are a crucial aspect of ASL. “Community” is being signed here. Photography by Kalli Anderson
“What did you say, could you repeat that?”
It’s maybe a common thing to ask, but for people who are Deaf, culturally Deaf, or who are hard of hearing, it can be a question essential to understanding a situation.
That’s why the frequent response is frustrating.
“Oh never mind, it’s not important.”
That’s how many hearing individuals deal with the situation. Instead, they should have patience and be considerate when communicating with people who are Deaf, culturally Deaf, or who are hard of hearing, says Kristin Johnson, a staff member of HEAR Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that serves the Deaf and hard of hearing communities.
Instead, comments like those sometimes make her feel left out of a conversation, Johnson says.
About 500,000 people are affected by hearing loss in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Health Services. But the barriers they face in educational, community and professional settings don’t often find their way into conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion.
And being Deaf or hard of hearing can sometimes be an invisible disability to others in places like college campuses where fellow students and faculty lack knowledge about Deaf culture. One day, Johnson hopes, hearing devices would be treated the same way as someone wearing eyeglasses to see better.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one in eight people over age 12 in the United States has hearing loss in both of their ears based on hearing examination results.
“A lot of individuals lack awareness, they have no exposure to the Deaf community,” says Erin Wiggins, a clinical assistant professor and coordinator for the American Sign Language studies program at UW–Milwaukee, who is Deaf.
Though American Sign Language has similar linguistic features to spoken English, it is a separate language with grammar distinct from English, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication disorders, ASL is “expressed by movements of the hands and face.” ASL is used by many members of the Deaf and hard of hearing communities, as well as by many hearing individuals.
“Historically speaking, ASL has been a very valued and treasured language,” says Joel Mankowski, who is Deaf and has worked as a lecturer for ASL and Deaf history courses at UW–Milwaukee for 17 years. “And there’s a very cohesive interlacing between the ASL and Deaf culture. There’s communication, there’s language that is shared, and it’s so valuable and so precious.”
UW–Milwaukee has a robust ASL program. ASL courses 1 through 6 are offered as foreign language courses. The university also offers courses in ASL semantics, Deaf culture and Deaf history.
ASL’s strong academic presence at UW–Milwaukee has translated to other places on campus. The university’s Sandburg Hall hosts an ASL living learning community, which gives Deaf and hard of hearing individuals the opportunity to live on campus in the same community as one another. Additionally, the living learning community is open to any UW–Milwaukee students, hearing students included, who are currently learning or want to learn ASL.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, more than 90% of people who are born Deaf have hearing parents. Because these people are not born into Deaf culture, they need opportunities to learn and engage with the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. The ASL living learning community is the perfect place where people who were born Deaf can be fully immersed in an exclusive ASL environment.
Ryne Thorne, who is Deaf, attended UW–Milwaukee as an undergraduate and is now a lecturer in the American Sign Language studies department at UW–Milwaukee. Thorne says, “there’s just a plethora of services and things that are offered here at the university.”
Although UW–Madison considers ASL to be a foreign language, it does not offer Deaf studies courses and has only two ASL classes, which don’t count toward the university’s foreign language requirements.
UW–Madison offers academic services such as live captioning, known as Communication Access Realtime Translation, to create transcripts of spoken language in real time for in-person and remote classes. Students must work with both the McBurney Disability Resource Center and their professors to ensure that CART is available for all of their classes.
Media captioning is another resource the McBurney Center offers to Deaf and hard of hearing students. These students must contact their professors to ensure that if a video will be played in class, media captioning will be used. This ensures that the Deaf and hard of hearing students are able to participate and learn the lesson.
Kate Lewandowski, a UW–Madison access consultant for Deaf and hard of hearing students for the McBurney Disability Resource Center, who herself is Deaf, says, “We also don’t have any courses related to Deaf studies, Deaf culture. So to me, I feel like that shows a lack of community, specifically the Deaf community, on our campus.”
“Law enforcement, hospitals, [the] legal system, I think they should all take classes for sign language and Deaf culture. Because I think that would help open their minds a little bit and understand what Deaf culture looks like and how they can be more of an advocate.”
— Ryne Thorne
American Sign Language and Deaf studies courses would not only be extremely beneficial to the Deaf and hard of hearing community, these classes would also be useful for anyone with an interest in learning about American Sign Language and Deaf studies. This could include people with Deaf or hard of hearing friends or family members, or anyone with a general interest to communicate with the Deaf or hard of hearing community.
UW–Madison senior Tanna Brubaker, a communications sciences and disorders major, hopes to become a speech and language pathologist. Brubaker was saddened that the communication science and disorders majors do not touch on ASL much.
Brubaker took communication sciences and disorders 424, essentially a condensed version of American Sign Language 1. Although American Sign Language is recognized as a foreign language by UW-Madison, the sign language class that Brubaker took does not count as a foreign language class.
“I really want to use ASL in my career,” Brubaker says. “I can’t believe they don’t make us take ASL.”
Because UW–Madison does not offer intermediate and advanced levels of American Sign Language, students like Brubaker are not able to continue with American Sign Language during their time at UW–Madison.
“They don’t have three or four years of it that you can take,” Brubaker says.
To foster a more inclusive society, hearing people could consider taking an American Sign Language or Deaf culture class, according to Thorne.
Catherine J. Giuntoli-DuBois, a lecturer of American Sign Language studies and ASL lab coordinator and language coach at UW–Milwaukee, who is Deaf herself, highlighted the importance of learning Deaf culture for hearing members of society to be aware of.
“We’re all diverse and we’re all different, but we’re all Deaf. We have experienced the same oppression,” Giuntoli-DuBois says.
Thorne mentioned that going beyond UW–Milwaukee and UW–Madison, it is important for the community at large to know basic knowledge of American Sign Language and Deaf culture.
“Law enforcement, hospitals, [the] legal system — I think they should all take classes for sign language and Deaf culture,” Thorne says. “Because I think that would help open their minds a little bit and understand what Deaf culture looks like and how they can be more of an advocate.”