American Sign Language Program engages students and deaf community

American Sign Language Program engages students and deaf community

By Colleen Bradley, communications intern

Group photo of ASL program participants

Stepping out of a classroom and applying learning to real-life situations can be daunting and intimidating, but it creates valuable and eye-opening lessons for students. The American Sign Language (ASL) Program at Ohio State encourages this through their service-learning course. Leaving the comfort of a classroom and entering true deaf space is beneficial both for the students' education and the deaf community's opportunity to gain allies.

"You can't learn ASL without meeting deaf people just because that is where you see the language actually being used and thriving," says Marla Berkowitz, an ASL senior lecturer and a co-instructor of the course. "It's the richness of the language actually being used by deaf people which can't really happen in a classroom environment."

The idea of a service-learning course was initiated by Kristin Wickham-Saxon, who is also a senior lecturer and a co-instructor of the course, during a discussion with a friend. Her friend had asked "Ohio State has so many students taking ASL, but what are they giving back to the deaf community?"

This was a light bulb moment for Wickham-Saxon.

The central Ohio area has the largest population of deaf people in the state of Ohio, therefore, she wanted her students to get involved in local organizations to teach them the importance of giving back. "There is a mutual benefit of the students learning about deaf culture, community, and language," says Wickham-Saxon. Students gain a genuine understanding of what it means to be deaf, giving the deaf community allies. The more allies they have, the more people they have to advocate for their needs and rights.

Through this program, students serve within the deaf community at a deaf-owned nursing home, deaf-run anti-violence agencies, independent living centers, group homes, and the Ohio School for the Deaf after-school program and Girls on the Run council.

Berkowitz and Wickham-Saxon bring unique perspectives to the program. Berkowitz, who is deaf, brings the first-hand perspective of the deaf community. She can personally express the needs and importance of service-learning to her students, while Wickham-Saxon acts as an example of a hearing person who is actively involved in the deaf community. She expresses the importance of recognizing one's power and privilege and using that for good.

Education is a main priority when it comes to advocating. Berkowitz says the goal of their program "is to gain visibility and promote awareness." Some examples include using captions when showing movies or videos in class, creating seating arrangements that allow visibility for all students, and bringing in guest speakers to talk about accessibility and inclusion. All of these could benefit more than just people who are deaf, a philosophy called universal design for learning.

The service-learning course's impact on the community and their students has been positive and beneficial. Students are gaining more tools for handling uncomfortable situations in deaf spaces and giving them more confidence to interact with the deaf community. The students' involvement in the program has also shifted the perception of people who are deaf from a group to observe to a group of actual people. Because of its impacts, the course was the recipient of Ohio State's 2019 Emerging Service-Learning Award.

At the Ohio School for the Deaf, the students there now have role models, know what it's like to go to college, and have increased their interpersonal communication skills. Furthermore, at Columbus Colony Elderly Care, the deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind residents "have experienced reduced isolation and increased companionship when students provide one-on-one attention during visits and activities," states Wickham-Saxon.

Success stories like these are evidence to Wickham-Saxon and Berkowitz that their engagement program truly is having an impact on the deaf community. Wickham-Saxon says the program is "building those allies, building access, and building those bridges."

For students interested in taking the course, it is being offered in Spring 2020, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:10 a.m. - 12:35 p.m.