Deaf culture at BYU has an opportunity to grow

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The ASL Club playing the game Clue at their last meeting  this semester.
The ASL Club playing the game Clue at its last meeting this semester.

American Sign Language courses at BYU give students opportunities to grow outside of the classroom and be involved in the ASL Club.

Selective sign language courses are offered to students throughout the year. These courses provide students an inside look at Deaf culture and allow a different perspective to be seen.

“Be prepared for voices off. When you show up there will be a lot of people with hands flying and voices muted,” said BYU student Rachel Pullan. Pullan is a hearing board member of the BYU ASL Club. She first started learning sign language at church.

Pullan said many misconceptions are placed upon deaf students. “The one major thing that hearing people sometimes don’t understand about the Deaf community is that deaf people don’t see themselves as needing help or assistance. They don’t see themselves as handicapped. It is just their culture and language and how they are as much as being Hispanic is different from being Caucasian. Deaf is different from hearing,” Pullan said.

She said everyone in the ASL Club is open, cheerful and not easy to offend. “A lot of students go through the ASL classes, because they love the language,” Pullan said.

The BYU deaf population on campus is small, with only a handful of deaf students. The ASL Club provides an outlet for students to be involved with the Deaf community and environment. Pullan said students can come to practice, meet people and experience things outside of the classroom. Most importantly, she said, the ASL Club is an outlet to build relationships with other students.

BYU accounting major Jason Keeler was born deaf but grew up oral. He said he took speech therapy classes throughout his life and learned sign language when he was called to serve in the Washington Seattle Mission speaking ASL.

“I think for a long time I viewed being deaf as negative. Like ‘what a drag. I can’t hear; I can’t be social,’ but I think that has definitely changed,” Keeler said. “As I learned sign language it has had a more positive impact, because I feel more connected to the people of this language. It is a stress reliever and makes me have a richer experience in life with living in a culture.”

Keeler said he loves his experience at BYU and especially being involved in the ASL Club. He said students think it is awesome to see someone sign. “One time one of my good friends and I were at a volleyball game. He was on the floor and I was on the bleachers and we were talking with each other like a normal conversation even though we were distant. It makes it fun,” he said.

He said being deaf does have its challenges. In family and small settings, Keeler said, it is easy to keep up, but in larger settings it is difficult. “In classes it can be tough; with social life it makes it a lot tougher. When everyone is in a group or dances it’s just impossible to understand everything that people are saying, but I am happy that I have friends that take time to tell me what is going on,” Keeler said.

Keeler said there is a small Deaf community on campus. He said there are lots of students taking first- and second-year ASL, but he said it is still only about 200 students out of 30,000. Although the group is small, he said they are very close and do activities together all the time.

“I get to be a part of a totally unique experience that I could have never had the privilege to be a part of had I not been deaf,” Keeler said. 

BYU senior Jacob Frost was born hearing and became deaf when he was 1 year old. He is graduating as a manufacturing engineer and is the former president of the BYU ASL Club.

Frost said being deaf helps him be more aware of how other people communicate. “I hate the texting. I prefer to talk because communication is something I lack throughout my life. I want to make up for it. I am more tolerant of people and I want to connect with them,” he said.

Frost learned how to use sign language when he was called on his mission. He had his first cochlear implant when he was 14 years old and had his second when he was 25.

“The cochlear implants help me a lot. It is a tool; it doesn’t fix my deafness, but it helps me be involved in the hearing world,” Frost said.

Frost said ASL is one of the most fun languages in the world because people get to see facial expressions and body language. “It’s more intimate,” he said.

Being deaf has given Frost the ability to overcome hard situations. “When bad things happen to me I say, ‘I can get over it,’ because I deal with deafness everyday. It helps me to handle the challenge better,” Frost said.

He said the Deaf culture at BYU is very private. “There is a handful of deaf students; it is a pretty small potato compared to UVU,” Frost said.

BYU’s education is nationally ranked but still has room to grow in comparison to UVU’s ASL & Deaf Studies programs. UVU has become well known across the nation for its Deaf Studies programs. Brian Eldredge, professor and director of UVU’s ASL & Deaf Studies program, said UVU has been offering ASL classes for 17–18 years.

UVU has offered bachelor’s degree programs in ASL & Deaf Studies since 2006. Eldredge was specifically involved in getting accreditation for the major. He said, “The state board of regions has a process for proposing bachelor degree programs. You have to show the demand. You have to show student interest, the level of readiness to offer the degree and the support within the university.”

Eldredge estimated there are currently 350 declared ASL majors at UVU. The head count for enrolled UVU students taking ASL classes ranges from 700 to 800 students.

“I think it has benefited UVU in a lot of ways. It’s given us a specific identity. It’s different from other universities. Deaf people know who UVU is,” Eldrege said. “It has also helped UVU to be inclusive ways that some universities are not. It gives them an opportunity to study different culture without the cost of international travel.”

For BYU student Natalie Smith, not having ASL as a minor or major option has been disappointing.”I want BYU to have a minor or major so bad. I think we would have a stronger Deaf community, because UVU has a huge one,” Smith said.

When Smith was nine years old she learned a song in sign language; when she was 14 she moved to Maryland, and her ward had many deaf people. “I just had friends that were deaf and babysat deaf kids. I started learning to sign and interpreting at church. When I came to Utah I took a few classes and met everyone at ASL club and became involved,” she said.

Smith is not the only student who wishes BYU had an ASL minor or major open for students. BYU ASL Assistant Coordinator Brandon Hill is a professor at BYU and expressed the same hopes. He said students can share their interests to the administration on having an ASL minor and major.

More information and pictures of the BYU ASL Club can be found on the club Facebook Page.

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