Signs of the Times: UConn celebrates Deaf Awareness Day

ASL Club and students hosts Deaf Awareness Day in ITE C-80 Thursday evening. The night consisted of plays on for the audience to enjoy. (Tyler Benton/The Daily Campus) 

Everyone knows the ending to “Cinderella.” The poor-servant girl finds her prince and marries him, living happily ever after. The curtain falls, the actors bow and the room is filled with applause.

ITE C80 was no exception on Thursday night, as the happy couple united on the stage in the front of the lecture hall. However, though applause was, indeed, given, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. Instead, a sea of waving hands greeted the performers - the American Sign Language (ASL) version of clapping.

The University of Connecticut's annual Deaf Awareness Day featured student productions and presentations performed entirely in ASL. Organized by the UConn ASL Club and the Department of American Sign Language Studies, the event featured an ASL version of Disney’s “Cinderella,” an ASL performance of “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana by the UConn ASL Club and a comedic routine by ASL performer Wink.   

UConn’s ASL 4 class writes, designs and performs a play in ASL each year, with a central theme revolving around deaf culture and sign language. Since its inception in 2002, several plays have been performed including “Shrek,” “Snow White” and “Harry Potter,” all rewritten to incorporate deaf culture.

For this year’s performance, “Cinderella” featured a deaf-version of the Disney princess, whose stepmother suppresses her ability to use sign language. However, with the help of her friends, she overcomes her stepmother’s prejudice, meets her Prince Charming and learns to use ASL.

The actors in the play used sign language for their dialogue, with voiceovers provided for those in the audience not fluent in ASL.

“It’s important for students, faculty and community to learn about deaf language and culture,” said UConn linguistics professor Doreen Simons, who has been involved with the event in the past, and is deaf herself.

“A lot of people don’t have an understanding of sign language. It’s important to foster a mutual respect between deaf people and hearing people.

The event has expanded over the past several years, Simons said, due to increased involvement.

“It has grown. The community outside of UConn has been invited, (and) it’s open to anybody,” she said.

Simons said that hearing students can become involved by taking ASL classes and culture classes, as well as becoming involved in other deaf-awareness activities.

“We have four classes in deaf culture, that help students understand the experiences of people who are deaf,” Simons said. “The idea is that people who are deaf are respected as a language minority.”

In addition to the play and the song performance, ASL comedian and interpreter Wink gave his perspective on deaf culture, as a child of deaf parents (CODA) who worked as an interpreter.

Though Wink is a hearing individual, he performed the entire routine in ASL, with a personal interpreter giving a voice over. Telling stories about how he acted as an interpreter for his parents, as well as some of the conflicts he had working as an interpreter, had the audience laughing and signing their applause.

At one point, Wink had four volunteers come to the stage and play a game of ASL telephone. One volunteer would watch Wink do a “surrogation” –an ASL technique that illustrates a concepts by mimicking it (such as a cat, going fishing or stacking boxes)-- and then pass it onto the next volunteer, and so on. While Wink initially signed a surrogation of an elephant, by the time it reached the fourth volunteer it turned into something totally different, which filled the hall with roars of laughter from deaf and hearing attendees alike.

“(Wink) was so funny,” said Sammi Mahoney, a second-semester pre-teaching major who attended the event to support her friend in the ASL Club. Though she is a hearing individual, Mahoney said that the event gave her an appreciation for ASL.

“Seeing this many people who do signing is awesome,” she said. “It’s interesting (to see) such a large amount of people who don’t sign, but support those who sign. It’s important to be supportive and involved.”

For deaf individuals, events such as Deaf Awareness Day can be a way to celebrate their culture and see a performance in their language.

“It was nice to see a performance that’s offered in ASL,” said Christopher Hayes, a first-year graduate student studying topology at UConn. “You don’t see that often. It helps get the idea across.”

Hayes said that what many people don’t realize about deaf culture is that many deaf people prefer to sign as a way of communication, even with technology and hearing aids.

“We as deaf individuals feel comfortable with signing,” Hayes said. “We are very content and happy with the way we live our lives.”  


Note: Annie Clark and Linda Pelletier interpreted the interviews of Christopher Hayes and Doreen Simons, which were both in ASL.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.