Making the world more accessible, a sign at a time
When masked faces became the norm because of COVID-19, Yale first-year student Chisom Ofomata, who is deaf, sometimes felt lost. Unable to read people’s lips, she wished she was more proficient in American Sign Language (ASL) so that she could have a “more accessible avenue of communication.”
This fall, Ofomata enrolled in the introductory American Sign Language course (ASL110). She was far from alone. More than 120 other Yale undergraduates also enrolled in the course.
In fact, the course, which has been offered since 2018, has become so popular among Yale College students that it has been expanded from two sections to seven this fall and has added two new lectors to its previous roster of one.
“Even with the expansion of the program, we still were not able to accommodate all of the students who wished to take introductory ASL this semester,” said Raffaella Zanuttini, chair of the Department of Linguistics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), which offers the ASL courses.
The popularity of the ASL program at Yale reflects a national trend, according to Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, director of the Center for Language Study and an associate dean in Yale College. American Sign Language is now the third most commonly taught language at American colleges and universities, behind Spanish and French, and is among the most used languages in the United States.
Before January 2018, when ASL became a for-credit course during a three-semester pilot program, Yale students could study ASL only through the Directed Independent Language Study program (DILS). They could not earn credit or use the course to fulfill their language requirement. Since the end of the pilot program, however, continued demand for ASL has given it a permanent place in the curriculum. ASL courses — which are now offered at four levels, all the way up to ASL 140 — can be used to fulfill the undergraduate language requirement.
A haven for students
Ofomata studied ASL in high school but skipped taking it during her senior year. So she signed up for the introductory ASL course at Yale to “rebuild” some the proficiency she felt she lost during that break. She enjoys the fact that the class is “voice off” — in other words, conducted fully in ASL or gesture without speech.
“Since we can’t speak in class, we have to communicate through ASL and, in some cases, written words,” Ofomata said. “This aspect is pleasing to me because it makes the class feel like a haven from the hearing world that pressures people with hearing loss to assimilate and constantly fight for accessibility.
“Instead of forcing myself to focus intently during conversations, desperate to catch every word, I have 50 minutes to give my brain a break and communicate with ease. For me, seeing conversations is a welcome relief from the difficulty I experience with verbal communication.”
Ofomata is enrolled in a course taught by lector Julia Silvestri, who earlier this year became coordinator of the ASL program. At the start of the fall semester, only she and recently hired lector Frances Conlin were scheduled to teach ASL. However, one week into the semester Andrew Fisher was invited to join the faculty as lector due to high demand for the course.
“We were both overwhelmed by the number of highly motivated students who wanted to enroll in the courses,” said Silvestri. “After realizing that we had about 90 students on the waitlist, we reached out to Raffaella, Nelleke, and Jason Zentz [assistant dean of academic and faculty affairs in the FAS Dean’s Office] to discuss the possibility of opening additional sections. With their support, we hired a third qualified lector to teach the courses. We were fortunate to have Andrew join us, and he was able to start teaching ASL classes by the next week!”
The lectors said that there are a variety of reasons for the growing popularity of ASL among students.
“Some of the students identify as deaf or hard of hearing, and some might identify as having other disabilities, such as a movement disability, and might feel that they could communicate better in ASL,” Conlin said. “Many of them are taking ASL because of their professional plans; some are interested in the medical field and want to be able to talk to patients who are deaf, for example, or are interested in the theater and want to communicate to a diverse audience. We also have future engineers, political scientists, and more. There is a lot of diversity.”
Exposing students to Deaf culture
All three of the ASL lectors are members of the Deaf community. Fisher, who comes from a deaf family, has been teaching ASL at the college level and is a well-known performer in the college comedy circuit. Silvestri, who has a deaf mother and siblings, learned ASL as a child and has taught the language at the K-12 and college levels. She also participates in ASL poetry, film, and performance arts organizations as a producer. Conlin, who was born hard of hearing and became deaf as a child, grew up in a school system that refused to offer sign language, making her educational experience a challenge. (She recalls many hours spent watching the classroom clock as she could not follow the spoken-language instruction.) She learned ASL as a teenager and went on to study linguistics, focusing especially on the acquisition of ASL by children, and has worked with programs serving deaf and hard of hearing children and their caregivers.
For all three, introducing their students to Deaf culture, and engaging them with it, is an important element in their ASL classes.
“At the center of ASL is Deaf culture,” said Silvestri. “We don’t expect our [hearing] students to lead the Deaf community, but we want them to be able to advocate and support it in the future.”
Just a few weeks into the semester, the ASL lectors collaborated with the undergraduate organization “ASL at Yale” to celebrate the International Week of Deaf People. It featured a signing table at which Yale community members could converse using ASL, an outdoor gathering at which students could learn signs, and a panel discussion by deaf leaders in Connecticut about thriving Deaf communities and the challenges they face. Additional events included a film screening and an ASL-accessible football game and halftime show at Yale Bowl. Several students also collaborated on two films, one of which spotlighted the various reasons #WhyYaleSigns.
“I got the chance to experience a signing table for the first time and communicate with other deaf people,” said Ofomata, the first-year student. “Prior to the week, I felt unconfident in my ASL abilities since they had been limited to the classroom. In a real-life social situation, my worries faded and I found myself immersed in conversation. For the first time since I’d been on campus, I was able to participate fully in a group conversation without feeling lost or confused.”
For the ASL lectors, creating awareness about the experiences of students such as Ofomata is an important element of their teaching.
“We are driven by our students’ enthusiasm for learning about ASL and Deaf culture, which serves as an important reminder: At Yale, we are not only teaching ASL, we are also raising awareness about the challenges specific to the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Deaf-Blind, and Deaf-Disabled community among future leaders in their fields, and, by extension, improving the medical, legal, and social services in the community together,” said Fisher.
Enlarging their worlds
Yale College students are eager to learn ASL for a variety of reasons.
Giovanni Rivas ’22 hopes to become proficient enough to be able to become engaged with the Deaf community in New Haven. He decided to learn ASL after becoming “a friend for life” with a deaf classmate during his first year at Yale. He learned some signs on his own to communicate with her, but wanted a more structured classroom experience.
“Just like the Italian language, or any other, there is an entire culture attached to ASL,” said Rivas, who is majoring in computer science and psychology. “In a world geared to hearing people, being Deaf is a different life experience, and it’s important to be aware of that.”
Yale sophomore Lauren Moore, who is majoring in Ethics, Politics & Economics, learned a little bit of ASL from her mother while growing up and was excited to discover that she could continue learning the language at Yale.
“On the first day of class, we were told that this would be a deaf space, with no talking, and no verbal communication,” said Moore. “But laughing is okay! And we could fingerspell. My first thought was that it would be challenging, but it’s been an amazing learning experience.” She hopes to become proficient enough to interpret at an event for a public service project that is required of students as part of the course to engage them with the Deaf community.
Ofomata is excited to know that many of her peers at Yale are interested in “learning the beauty of ASL” and Deaf culture.
“As someone who grew up in a public school where I struggled to get accommodations and didn’t have deaf or hard of hearing friends, I constantly felt isolated,” she said. “Painfully aware that I existed in a world that regularly fails to accommodate me and views hearing loss as something to be fixed, I hid my hearing aids and identity away from the world. The hair that obscured my hearing aids from the world wasn’t lifted until I took ASL for the first time in my freshman year of high school.
“Through the class and my newfound knowledge of Deaf pride, I realized that there is beauty in my hearing loss and that it makes me undeniably me.”
Before taking Silvesri’s class, Evan Gordon, a 27-year-old senior and U.S. army veteran who is in the Eli Whitney Students Program for nontraditional students, had never interacted with a deaf person. A neuroscience major with a concentration in pre-medical studies, he is interested in a career in pediatric medicine and surgery and wanted to learn to sign so that he can communicate in the future with deaf or hard of hearing patients. Enamored with the expressive gestures of ASL, Gordon also has enjoyed learning some of the history associated with Deaf culture. For instance, he was pleased to learn that a Yale alumnus, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet 1805 B.A., 1808 M.A., established the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, which is the first school for deaf students in the Americas and the birthplace of ASL. (ASL is one of hundreds of sign languages in the world).
“I’ve always looked at language as something optional, but I have witnessed how deaf and hard of hearing people really appreciate that we learn about their culture,” said Gordon. “ASL is not just a beautiful language. Learning it will allow me to become a better physician one day.”
Zanuttini, who first officially proposed making ASL a for-credit course and shepherded the proposal through a number of Yale College and FAS committees to see it come to fruition, noted that the study of ASL has far-reaching benefits.
“Having students who are proficient in ASL helps to make Yale a more accessible and inclusive campus community, which is something we strive for,” she said. “Giving a language recognition is very important for its speakers. It gives recognition to their identity, their sense of pride in who they are or in their family’s history if they are from a deaf family. It boosts the arts, because it is a language that is used to create or interpret works of art, and allows deaf and hard of hearing storytellers, playwrights, and poets to flourish. Maybe some Yale students who have learned ASL will encounter deaf people in their future work.
“By teaching ASL, we are preparing students to be better citizens in our society and in our world.”