Students expand American Sign Language opportunities on campus


By Ethan Werner, Staff Writer

With increased awareness of the importance of American Sign Language, more opportunities to learn the language have arisen as well. ASL is an integral part of countless lives from birth until death; many cannot communicate without the use of the language.

This importance became evident very early on to Haven Elliott, senior in LAS, who has worked as a teacher’s assistant at a preschool/daycare for the past few years. There, Elliott met children with developmental disorders which would impair their abilities to communicate with both their teachers and each other. They, however, began to “use some adapted sign language with the children, which really helps them,” remarks Elliott.

Working with these children inspired Elliott to pursue joining American Sign Language classes at the University, but she did not anticipate how difficult it would be to find a seat in one of these classes. The ASL classes at the University are generally in high demand, sometimes being filled up by the time it opens to students outside of the College of Applied Health Sciences, so Elliott was forced to wait semesters until she would have an opportunity to join. 

Elliott’s inspiration to learn sign language is not a unique experience either. Johana Machuca, senior in AHS and LAS studying Speech and Hearing Sciences and Spanish, realized the importance of ASL at a very young age when a close family member was born prematurely.

“(She) received early intervention services, and that’s where I saw the speech pathology side of it,” said Machuca. “She saw a speech therapist and they started off using sign language.”

Not only would this inspire her to study ASL, but she now sits on the Executive Board for the American Sign Language and Deaf Culture Club which works to provide more opportunities for students to learn sign language.

Machuca explains how the ASL and Deaf Culture Club is for everyone, no matter how little or how much experience they have with signing. 

They have bi-weekly meetings in which they go over information about deaf culture and teach basic ASL. For those who may be more experienced, they have advanced conversations at the end of each meeting as well in which they try to only sign and not to speak out loud.

Dahlia Davis, sophomore in LAS and also the Community Outreach Coordinator of the Club, explained that they, in some ways, provide an alternative as well as an expansion to the University’s classes.

“I’m fortunate to be able to incorporate ASL classes into my academic schedule, but feel like the club is useful for those without that space,” Davis said. “I see the club’s education in basic ASL and culture as a useful extension to provide the deaf and hard of hearing students access on campus”

Davis is hard of hearing herself and has utilized the University’s disability services various times throughout her college career. Her professors have made efforts to be accommodating during the pandemic by providing captions on her online lectures. One  assured her that they use high quality microphone so there were no issues with the captions on the video.

She said she still believes more can be done to help, especially in modern times when voices are further suppressed by masks and social distancing, saying “I think basic ASL would aid everyone’s experience in University buildings such as dining halls, where it is cumbersome to communicate with the students serving food behind thick, plastic barriers and wearing masks.”

Davis said she is still grateful for organizations such as the ASL and Deaf Culture Club, adding that “participating in an RSO that recognizes my ability is refreshing.” 

It doesn’t have to be refreshing for an organization to recognize the hard of hearing, though. The more people that learn about deaf culture and American Sign Language, the less of a societal barrier there is for the Deaf and Hard of hearing. 

The fact that ASL classes are filling up so quickly could mean that more people recognize its importance, and also that it may be time for more classes to be created. A major theme among the ASL students was the wish for not only new classes, but bigger classes as well.

“Hopefully they can open up more seats for more people to learn ASL,” Elliott said. Machuca and Davis added that there is the ASL and Deaf Culture Club in the meantime that students could reach out to through email at [email protected], which provides everyone on campus an opportunity to learn more about sign language.

[email protected]

Editor’s Note: There was a spelling error that has since been corrected. The Daily Illini regrets this error.