How the UT Austin ASL Program Invites Students into a Deaf Space
Entering the class, the instructor gestures for you to take a seat. The seats are arranged in a semi-circle with clear sightlines across the room and toward the instructor. Two teaching assistants arrange worksheets and switch on a projected screen of vocabulary words while everyone settles in.
With an enthusiastic signal to the class to capture their attention, Deborah White begins to explain the differences between the signs for “aunt,” “girl,” and, a little further afield but still utilizing a fist with thumb up gesture close to the face: “everything.” These instructions, which are a recap of the previous week’s vocabulary, are met with some hesitation by the group of students. Some of them train their eyes on White, while some look around at their peers for cues. There are small murmurs, but everyone maintains silence and works through the difficulty of not failing back upon their long-accustomed way of using language—speech and hearing. Instead, in this typical Beginning American Sign Language course, they are pushed out of their comfort zones. It’s a deliberate strategy devised by White, associate professor of instruction in linguistics and co-director of UT Austin’s American Sign Language (ASL) program.
In the hearing world, these students have at their disposal what they’re used to every day, says Michael Wynne, associate professor of instruction in linguistics and co-director of the ASL program. “But in the Deaf classroom, they are the ones who don’t have access to the communication modality that they rely on. They have always based their education on hearing, auditory learning, and now they have to actually learn visually. And they learn all of these new things, and then go out into the world with a completely new perspective.”
Both White and Wynne allow an interpreter, a person who can effectively translate between English and ASL, to join the first day of class during an explanation of the syllabus and course material for 45 minutes. After that, students are vaulted into full immersion for the rest of the semester. For advanced students, even the habit of forming English words with your mouth while signing — known as “mouthing” — is strongly discouraged. It’s in the moment when students are most uncertain about how to proceed that White and Wynne shine, adeptly navigating instruction to allow students to build on past lessons and gain proficiency.
White and Wynne are both Deaf educators who have taught previously at Austin’s nearby Texas School for the Deaf, and they see themselves and the ASL program they are building at UT Austin as about more than just language. They are a bridge between the Deaf and hearing communities. Their identity as part of the Deaf community is integral to the way that they teach American Sign Language, which is just as much about understanding Deaf culture as it is about vocabulary, syntax, and grammar.
For Deaf individuals in the U.S., ASL is their primary language, but there are very few hearing adults — even Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs) — for whom this is true, as Richard P. Meier, professor and chair of the linguistics department explains. “There are certainly hearing individuals who can effectively teach ASL,” says Meier, “including some CODAs and some highly skilled ASL interpreters, just as there are native speakers of English who can effectively teach Spanish or French. But our Deaf faculty bring unique linguistic knowledge of ASL and an extraordinary understanding of Deaf culture that cannot be matched. They are immersed in Austin’s large Deaf community and in the nationwide Deaf community. In fact, many of the Deaf faculty in the ASL Program have been immersed in ASL and in the Deaf community since the day they were born.”
“Sometimes people are not quite sure about entering that Deaf space. We want to break down those barriers, and really invite the UT community into our classroom and then into the community at large.”
The deep knowledge and immersion informs all of UT’s instruction in ASL. Each student who engages with the ASL program by taking a course or joining the minor is initiated into the ASL community at UT and in Austin. “We want people to learn more about our language, about the classes that we offer,” Wynne says. “Sometimes people are not quite sure about entering that Deaf space. We want to break down those barriers, and really invite the UT community into our classroom and then into the community at large.”
White and Wynne’s work is being noticed. Students from across the university register for sign language courses for personal and professional reasons. When asked to speculate about why their courses are always fully enrolled and usually waitlisted, White and Wynne mention that this generation is well adapted to visual language and kinetic learning, which is often embedded into their other pursuits. “Athletes, especially, love taking ASL and I think it’s because there are already a lot of visual signs, signals, and cues used to work collaboratively in sports,” White mentions. “I just think they’re more used to taking information in that way.”
For other students, there is an understanding of the immediacy of what they learn that they can use in their daily lives and careers. Christian Morales, a fourth-year Audiology major with a minor in ASL who is one of White’s teaching assistants, took a circuitous route to his current path, beginning his academic career as an electrical engineering major. When considering alternatives, Morales thought back to experiences he had working at a snow-cone stand during high school in his hometown of Vernon, Texas. Vernon is a small town, so the single Deaf family who lived there and would frequent the snow-cone stand stood out to him. Morales remembered communicating with the family by writing back and forth on a piece of paper. “I felt bad that a piece of paper was the only form of communication I could offer,” Morales said. “So instead, I started learning basic sign language to be able to do more. I was extremely nervous when I first attempted to sign with them, but at the same time very happy because I knew they appreciated the effort.” He would later take ASL classes with the mom of the Deaf family and that seed was still there when he decided to take ASL courses at UT Austin and found a path he was passionate about pursuing.
Now, Morales completes his studies in Audiology and ASL through a broader cultural and historical lens. Through courses such as “Perspectives on Deafness and Deaf Culture,” both taught by Wynne, he has learned about the history of discrimination against the Deaf community and the continuing challenges of maintaining a distinct Deaf culture while also having equal access to the resources of the hearing world. “I want to be part of a new generation of audiologists who understand the importance of ASL and Deaf culture,” he says.
White and Wynne are enthusiastic about the potential for expanding the ASL program at UT both in scale and scope. More than anything, they see their role as responsible interlocutors between their students at UT and the national Deaf community.
“We want to know our students and we want to tailor their curriculum so that they will be able to use the signs they’ve learned in their everyday environment,” Wynne said. “For many of the Deaf faculty, and for Debbie and me, that intention serves a dual purpose. Yes, we’re teaching a language, but we’re also doing work to benefit our [Deaf] community. We live within that community, and now we’re bringing more signers into that community and the world.”