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Accessibility to all: The importance of American Sign Language in everyday life

Photos and design by Mackenzie Hudson and Sarah Schmid

Over 5% of the world’s population is Deaf or hard of hearing, according to the World Health Organization. Many people believe those who are deaf and hard of hearing deserve equal access to communication, a higher quality of life and that ASL should be accessible to everyone in everyday life.  

Part of this inclusivity is the capitalization of the word ‘Deaf’ when referring to the Deaf and hard of hearing community. This small detail helps to familiarize others with Deaf culture and normalize how people refer to the Deaf and hard of hearing community, according to the Deaf Counseling Center.

Claire Oberg, senior elementary education and special education major, has always been interested in Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL), which is why she decided to minor in ASL during her sophomore year. Oberg is currently student teaching and sometimes uses sign language to communicate with her students. 

“I use [ASL] when I’m teaching, specifically in special education with non-verbal students and students with different disabilities. It’s helpful to have a signed language that I can teach them or provide communication,” Oberg said.

ASL has given Oberg a greater appreciation for Deaf culture and given her more opportunities to communicate with others. 

“[ASL] is very enjoyable to learn on a personal level. You also get opened up to this whole other community and different ways of communicating,” Oberg said. “I feel like you become a more effective communicator because of those non-verbal cues of facial features and how to be aware of what people want out of a conversation.”

While Deaf culture supports individuals who are deaf, it also gives access to information about the world such as the ability to drive, travel, work and play an active role in society, according to the National Deaf Education Center.

In a world that relies mostly on spoken languages, Deaf culture and ASL can open doors for everyone. With changes to everyday life, such as masks and Zoom, it can be difficult for the Deaf community to interact with people how they usually would.

The Importance of Learning ASL

[Design of the word ‘love’ spelled in American Sign Language]
Photos and design by Mackenzie Hudson and Sarah Schmid

Boise State ASL Instructor Mikkel Nelson believes it is important for everyone to learn sign language to better understand the Deaf and hard of hearing community.  

“I think it’s important for hearing people to learn ASL so that they can become allies to the Deaf community,” Nelson said. “It really helps them understand Deaf culture more in-depth and the language itself provides an understanding of deaf people and their needs.” 

Nelson teaches ASL classes at Boise State and the College of Western Idaho. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson would do home visits and work with families who have children who are deaf and hard of hearing. 

“We focus on language development for their children and how parents and children can communicate with each other while having that hearing loss,” Nelson said. “If a parent has a baby who is deaf or hard of hearing, I will work with the parents. As the children grow up, about two or three, I start working with the child a little bit more and modeling to the parents what that interaction should look like with the child to help them use the language with the child.” 

Deaf culture has many traditions, values and behaviors that support the Deaf and hard of hearing community. Deaf culture promotes an environment that supports vision as the primary sense used for communication at school, in the home and in the community.

Nelson encourages everyone to learn ASL because of its diversity, culture and uniqueness. 

“I think this is a great time to learn ASL. ASL is a very fun language, it’s very engaging and it’s so unique because it’s a visual language,” Nelson said. “There’s also a culture tied to it, which most people are not aware of. Most people have not heard of Deaf culture and it’s just a wonderful experience for students to take a class.” 

Davina Snow, Boise State ASL lecturer and section head, believes ASL can be beneficial and helpful for everyone in everyday life. According to Snow, being bilingual or trilingual helps strengthen the brain and is great for when people are far away, like social distancing requires.

“You can use ASL through windows, in a loud room such as a dance floor or a workplace where machinery is used, underwater, during movies, or where you need to be quiet and more,” Snow said.  

Snow understands that not everyone is an auditory learner, someone who depends on listening and speaking as a way of learning, and ASL can be an alternative way of communication.

“It’s important to be able to connect with people who communicate visually and/or nonverbally. Not everyone — even if you are hearing — are auditory learners. There are so many who are visual learners. If you use some ASL, it would benefit everyone,” Snow said.

Snow also explains that people other than those who are deaf or hard of hearing use ASL to communicate. People with disabilities, like down syndrome or autism, may struggle with auditory or verbal communication. By using ASL, they can effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings to others. 

Communication through Zoom and Masks

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people have used Zoom as a way to communicate, including those who are deaf and hard of hearing. According to Nelson, teaching over Zoom has complications. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, when Nelson would go to homes and teach children ASL, he would point to everyday objects, reference them in his lessons and teach them the signs. Now, he doesn’t have access to the same environment and can’t incorporate that approach in his lessons, which makes teaching more difficult.

Nelson also mentions that a child’s attention span is shortened when learning through a screen rather than in-person. Like any type of technology, Zoom experiences technical difficulties, which makes teaching and learning harder for everyone. 

“It really depends on the family that I’m working with and how strong their internet connection is. Sometimes my visits do have a lot of technical issues,” Nelson said. 

Nelson often has pre-recorded lectures for his students to watch, but because ASL is an interactive language, it makes it hard for students to retain the information. Students need to practice harder and put more effort into their learning over Zoom, according to Nelson. 

In many states and counties across the nation, masks and facial coverings are required when going out in public. While masks and facial coverings are used as a safety precaution, it also hinders communication for the Deaf and hard of hearing community. Those who are deaf and hard of hearing often rely on facial expressions and lip-reading to understand what others are feeling and trying to communicate. 

“[Masks] have had a huge impact on the community, mostly for the hard of hearing members of our community,” Nelson said. “Typically, they depend more on being able to see the lips and the mouth. Because they are hard of hearing, they do rely on some auditory input, so they do lip-read a lot more. Having the mouth covered has been a huge challenge for them.”

Nelson has tried using clear masks so people can easily see his mouth, lips and facial expressions, but has found they are not effective because they tend to fog up when he breathes. 

“The masks cover a lot of facial expressions because we sign so close to the face, a lot of times we will hit the mask when we are signing,” Nelson said. 

Snow also mentions the importance of visual cues and facial expressions when signing.

“Some Deaf and hard of hearing people can hear a little bit and some can’t hear at all. It fluctuates and is different for everyone,” Snow said. “Deaf and hard of hearing people often look for visual cues when communicating. With masks, you can’t see facial expressions and understand their emotions. Masks create a wall between the Deaf and hard of hearing community and hearing people.”

Accessibility in life

As someone who is a part of the Deaf and hard of hearing community, Nelson believes that those who are deaf and hard of hearing should have language access everywhere they go. 

“There should be no limitations as to where they can go to school or do business,” Nelson said. “We know that people who can hear, have full access to go anywhere they want and be able to communicate. That should be equal for the Deaf community. They should have access to the language wherever they go. It would just be nice to have no barriers and to have that language access.”

Nelson suggests that providing interpreters or having closed captions on movie screens can help make the Deaf experience more equitable to the hearing community. While these are small actions to help the Deaf and hard of hearing community, it can leave a big impact on the quality of life. 

Snow also believes those who are deaf and hard of hearing deserve equal access and equal opportunities. 

“If ASL is accessible to all, it gives Deaf and hard of hearing people better opportunities at work, school and improve relationships with people in general. If you understand more of what we experience with our culture and lifestyle, providing more access gives us a better quality of life.” 

Oftentimes, Deaf and hard of hearing people struggle to communicate with those who are hearing and experience thoughts of loneliness, according to Snow.

“Being deaf or hard of hearing can be lonely,” Snow said. “You go to work and you’re alone because you’re deaf. But, if everyone in the workplace learns a little bit of signing, it’s better for basic communication. For example, at work, you could ask to go to the bathroom and people would understand. If people learn a little bit of signing, it will help everyone out.” 

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