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The (ASL) College Experience

Justin Kessler

While Project Bloom explores and covers many issues regarding accessibility. In general, when discussing accessibility, the Deaf Community does not gain nearly as much attention as they should. How the Deaf Community navigates different campuses, including Gallaudet University (a university for the Deaf) versus our own at Saint Joseph’s University is very interesting to see the differences. Saint Joe’s offers an American Sign Language course in which students must learn the language to overcome the language barrier between teacher and students, as well as the language barrier to have conversations with members of the Deaf Community. However, the way ASL is traditionally taught has changed drastically with the spring 2020 semester being moved online, and should be explored into to see how it alters the experiences of the students and the teachers.

Gallaudet University

Gallaudet University, founded in 1864, is the first and only liberal arts university in the world geared toward the Deaf Community. Gallaudet’s student’s preferred method of communication on campus is American Sign Language (ASL) and is generally regarded as the premier university for Deaf students in the United States. In terms of living conditions, Gallaudet accommodates their large number of Deaf students with the Living and Learning Residence Hall 6, which features entirely DeafSpace architectural design.

Living Learning Residence Hall 6

DeafSpace architectural design was created due to the fact that the previous residence hall was designed for and constructed by members of the hearing community, but they did not have the knowledge of spatial awareness used by the Deaf community. DeafSpace’s architectural goal is, “creating a rich multi-sensory environment that eases mobility, expresses identity, and enhances wellbeing.” This includes the wide entryways that allow signers more room to gesture and the automatic doors that don’t require anyone to stop mid-phrase to grab a handle. In the common room, a large, horseshoe-shaped bench fosters the kind of “conversation circles” in which deaf people feel comfortable. Diffuse natural light makes it easy to follow friends’ and teachers’ signing.” This residence hall also features a collaboration room, a seminar room, a fireplace lounge, and many other gathering spaces that encourage group activities amongst the students.


The Saint Joe’s ASL Experience

While Saint Joseph’s University does not offer any DeafSpace designed residence halls, it does offer an American Sign Language course that is always taught by a Deaf teacher. By small classroom sizes it is evident that ASL is not many students’ first foreign language of choice to meet Saint Joseph’s language requirement. Many students seem to gravitate towards Spanish, French, and Italian as those are offered at many high schools, and students have most likely not have had exposure to sign language. From a personal note, I had taken Spanish for half a semester before finding ASL as a language that better suited my learning style and interests.

The ASL course not only teaches students the language, but the culture and history of the Deaf Community. Small facts that I learned that interested me greatly such as the huddle in football or signs from a catcher in baseball originated from the Deaf Community. There were mandatory events, in which students must interact with members of the Deaf Community and every experience was truly a rewarding one. The first event I attended was a comedy show in Philadelphia with my classmate Kennedy Root. “I remember laughing at the jokes being told and being able understand them as they were being signed was a great feeling.” Root said, “To be able to have a real conversation with someone in the Deaf community was such a good experience.”

A second event I attended was going to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf with classmate Missy McPherson. We were able to sit in on a class of fourth graders and interact with them after the class.“It was so much fun signing with an eight year old girl, who could sign even faster than me.” McPherson said, “I am so glad I took this course as it provided me with unique experiences I will always remember.”

In terms of teaching the course, former SJU and current University of Penn ASL professor, Kaitlyn Parenti loved the experience. “Teaching the language and the culture and history to the students has meant a great deal to me.” Parenti said, “Teaching them about a whole new community they rarely if ever think about is the best part of this course.”

While Professor Parenti did share on how it can be difficult to teach students who are hearing and not being able to have a speaking conversation with them. She overcomes this barrier by emailing with the student or if in person typing things out on her computer and using the projector in order to converse directly. 

COVID-19 Impact

With the sudden Covid-19 pandemic and Saint Joseph’s and Penn moving their classes online, ASL classes have certainly taken a step back in terms of quality.

“Not being able to use the projector has hindered the course.” Parenti said, “Not being able to see every student in person or help them individually with their signs has made it more difficult to teach. Nothing that I can’t overcome, but it can be difficult for the students with signing on the computer because they have to remember to angle their cameras so I can see it too.”

Looking Forward

As a society, we should strive to recognize the accessibility issues that members of the Deaf Community face everyday in a hearing world, and work towards accommodating them when possible.

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