Club tries to advance deaf culture

By Courtney Klemm

When Katie Meyer, senior in engineering, was a sophomore, she enrolled in a speech and hearing science course called Sign English. After taking the class, she began to notice the lack of resources on campus for people who signed.

“I thought I’d change this,” Meyer said. “I wanted to do something so that everybody could get together and practice and get resources.”

Meyer, who is classified as hard-of-hearing and wears a hearing aid, was inspired and began researching. After a year of work, she started a registered student organization called the Society of Signers (SOS).

“I had to take a year of individual preparation to talk to people and find resources, get an exec board and find out more about ASL (American Sign Language) deaf culture,” she said. “I found a few friends who were interested, but we really struggled last year.”

Starting this year, Meyer said her executive board is extremely motivated in raising the awareness of ASL and deaf culture. So motivated, in fact, that they have been advocating to include sign language as an option for foreign language requirements.

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“This would be a way for the hearing and the deaf communities to integrate and learn more about each other,” said Stephanie Schutzenhofer, junior in applied life studies and internal vice president for SOS. “It has its own characteristics, just like any other culture. It’s a good opportunity for people to learn about this misrepresented culture.”

John Brand III, director of education on the society’s executive board, said he feels that not many people recognize American Sign Language as a real language.

“It’s not just a way for the deaf to communicate. It’s a culture, too,” said the junior in LAS. “Other universities have recognized it – we should, too. There’s a large deaf community in Champaign-Urbana.”

Almost 150 schools nationwide accept ASL in fulfillment of foreign language requirements, including area schools such as Eastern Illinois University, Purdue, Illinois State, Iowa and Michigan, according to a list on the Society of Signer’s Web site maintained by University of New Mexico professor Sherman Wilcox.

Members of SOS have no doubt that students have interest in taking sign language as a foreign language.

“The demand is huge,” Meyer said. “Every ASL class that exists is overpacked. I think many more people would take it as credit but have a hard time fitting it in as an elective.”

Meyer said the speech and hearing science department hired a new assistant professor, Dr. David Quinto-Pozos, who will become the head of the ASL department and is now teaching a deaf cultural class. The new program could be installed as early as the next academic year.

“I came from Pittsburgh where there was a large program with 250 students and 10 sections of level-one ASL,” Quinto-Pozos said. “Students were pounding down the doors to get in. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be like that here.”

Quinto-Pozos said implementing the program depends mainly on the funding.

“We are trying to figure out how to come up with the money,” he said. “We are exploring the possibility of (using) other classes to help support it.”

Meanwhile, society members are working themselves to bring the language to the University.

“We do things to promote deaf education, like our ASL week we had,” Brand said. “We had stands and passed out flyers. We had a movie about deaf culture (one night), had workshops and brought in speakers. We also have fields trips, where we only use sign language, not spoken English.”

Brand, who is deaf and is able to hear minimally with a hearing aid, was so interested in bringing ASL awareness to campus that he began to teach the language. Now, he not only teaches in a formal classroom as a teaching assistant, but he also gives informal lessons on weeknights at Allen Hall.

“I wanted to teach people sign language from a deaf person’s expertise,” he said. “I think they understand better from a deaf person. It was also an easy way to make friends.”

Brand’s lessons and Society of Signers meetings both welcome people of all ages and signing abilities. There are also social events that members are encouraged to attend. Past events include eating pizza on the Quad, pumpkin picking at Curtis Orchard and a costume party for Halloween. Members can also pair up with a “sign buddy” in order to practice and learn more signs.

All of this effort is completely worthwhile to the executive board and members of SOS.

“It’s a useful language and one that you come across here (in the area),” Schutzenhofer said. “It’s just like any other language.”