ASL Club: Opening up doors to communication and helping people understand Deaf culture

The ASL Club. (Photo supplied via writer)

Despite the Deaf population standing at one million people in the U.S., the American Sign Language (ASL) department at Uconn is small. ASL club is a group of students committed to learning about Deaf culture and studying ASL.

Most members of the ASL club joined for the extra support while they took ASL courses, so the club is largely built out of people with a common interest in ASL. This doesn’t mean that only students with a knowledge of ASL or who are enrolled in ASL classes are allowed in, the club stresses accessibility for everyone.

“ASL club is open to anyone, you don’t have to take ASL at all,” Olivia Stenger, Daily Campus photo editor and an eighth-semester English and speech, language and hearing sciences double-major, said. “For the first meeting of ASL club we just did basic signs cause there were a lot of people that didn’t take sign language and who didn’t know, so we kind of introduced that as how to say ‘hi, my name is’ and we just went around and introduced each other to ourselves.”

Whenever the club brings in a Deaf faculty member or guest speaker, they always have an interpreter present to translate, according to Stenger.

This accessibility was demonstrated in last week’s Deaf Awareness Day. Deaf Awareness Day was created in cooperation with the ASL four class and included a familiar story with a twist to promote the Deaf community as well as a Deaf talent, usually a magician or a comedian. This year they made a version of Frozen where Elsa was Deaf and forced by her parents to stop signing after an accident where she nearly deafened her sister. The cast of this play was split in two, with one person signing and one person voicing for every character so that everyone could understand.

“(The goal of Deaf Awareness Day is) probably just getting people to just learn about people who are different from them,” Stenger said. “I think that the most important thing is that just opening up your mind a little and just seeing the way other people live that is different from how we do. I think that’s just really important, and getting them to respect ASL and the way that Deaf people live. And showing that signing is, yes it’s beautiful and yes it’s cool and interesting, but it’s how they communicate and it’s how they live and it’s different than us, but it’s still important to learn about and we can learn a lot from it.”

This event was a way to show a large portion of the hearing people at UConn that this part of society exists and should be acknowledged and treated with respect.

The ASL club usually has three main events every year, during the spring semester. These include Deaf Awareness Day, Controversial Sign Night where one of the Deaf faculty are brought in to teach the club members a sign that they wouldn’t necessarily learn in the classroom and the alternative spring break to Washington D.C. to help out in the after-school program at the Deaf elementary school in Gallaudet University. On Wednesday the first transitive E-board was held to discuss plans and changes for next semester.

Sidayah Dawson, a sixth-semester molecular and cell biology major and next year’s president of ASL club commented on what she hoped to change for next year:

“So right now we have tried to broaden our audience for our membership, but that makes it difficult for the vice president to plan meetings, because we have people of different ASL backgrounds and skill levels, so it’s harder to tailor meetings to everyone,” Dawson said. “So we’re going to try and find who our target audience is I guess for our meetings. Other than that, I think we’re planning on doing more ASD trips, American School for the Deaf. We usually do one or two a year and we’re going to try and do maybe once a month for next semester and see how that goes. And maybe doing more polling throughout the semester just to see what we’re struggling on, what we are doing well in, what we need to fix.”

The ASD trips allow students to be emerged in Deaf culture as well as interact with members of the Deaf community. Dawson said their work at ASD is their largest impact on the Deaf community.

“I think we have an influence to students at ASD, when we went last week or about two weeks ago, when we were leaving a student asked if we were coming back, so that was a really heart-tugging moment because they actually enjoy our presence,” Dawson said.

It’s not surprising that the students at ASD enjoyed ASL club’s visit considering how little people attempt to learn ASL and understand Deaf culture in America.

“I think it’s important to learn ASL to make all communication accessible for everyone in every situation,” Bryne Sidney, a sixth-semester speech, languages and hearing sciences and cognitive science double-major, said. “So if there’s a Deaf person, a lot of the time people talk right to an interpreter if there’s one present when you should really be talking directly to them purely because you are talking to them, you’re not talking to their interpreter and it’s respectful to talk to the person that you’re talking to directly.”

The Deaf community may be small at UConn, but that doesn’t mean no one should make an effort to communicate with them and understand them.

“Learning even the small things that you’ll learn in club or where you experience through club could help foster a better dynamic between the hearing and the Deaf communities.” Dawson said. “And just keep in mind that not everyone has the same privileges as you, and so it’s just like a reality check to understand and help understanding amongst others.”

There are numerous sources out there to learn ASL.

“Take a class, it’s so open and just so easy to learn it, well not easy to learn because it’s not an easy subject, but there’s so many opportunities like come to ASL club, take a class or learn the alphabet on Youtube, there’s so many things you can do just to… even if it’s just a little it still counts,” Stenger said.

Even just knowing the alphabet could open the doors to communication, and show the Deaf community that people care about them and their culture. ASL club is open to all and meets in Oak Hall room 106 on Wednesdays, so if you’re at all interested in learning then you’re welcome to attend.


Rebecca Maher is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.maher@uconn.edu.