Yujie Shao '23 signs "yes" in ASL. Photo by Yujie Shao.
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My sophomore year in 2019, my small high school in the town of Fairborn, Ohio hired an American Sign Language teacher. For a school that had only had Spanish as a foreign language for a good decade, sign language was a refreshing change that came with a friendly face: Michelle Lee arrived as a thirty-something single mother with two kids who had travelled all over the United States interpreting sign language. She had been an EMT, a member of the Air Force, she had worked with Disney on cruises, in parks, in musicals, and she had experience interpreting in the 711 line that helps deaf people communicate over the phone. By the time she got to us, Ms. Lee had done it all in the world of sign language interpretation. She was knowledgeable not only about the intricacies of the language itself, but also in the cultural roots of the Deaf community.
Did you know that there are Deaf interpreters? Do you know how Deaf people get each other’s attention? How do they know when someone is at the door if they can’t hear a doorbell or a knock? Why is there no interpreter at the Superbowl? What is the cultural experience of the children of Deaf adults, also known as CODA? These are all questions that my little Ohio high school had never considered before Ms. Lee showed up and rocked our world by introducing us to a richly historical community of people who are all-too-often overlooked by everyone else in America. Ms. Lee brought our high school and the Deaf community together by not just encouraging, but requiring that each of her students attend “Deaf events” throughout the year, which were events specifically designed to bring the Deaf community together through fun activities and give ASL students the chance to immerse themselves in the Deaf experience for a night. She would host taco dinners where we were docked points for speaking verbally so that we would really get the experience of communicating with our hands while eating.
I took three years of American Sign Language with Ms. Lee as my teacher, and it was an experience that enlightened me to a marginalized community that I had never had access to before. One of my best friends who took the same class decided that they were going to pursue sign language interpretation as their career path. I watched them search hard for a school that had a successful ASL interpretation program and come up with very few options. Colleges with ASL seem to be few and far between.
I knew that was not my personal path, and I came to Lawrence for entirely other reasons, but I was surprised once I got here to learn that Lawrence has no ASL program or even a single class for sign language. For a school that so values inclusivity, taking in different perspectives, and introducing the light of many, not having a lick of sign language seems entirely out of the ordinary. I gained an incredible amount of insight into the entirety of American culture through the study of ASL and Deaf culture, which is something that aligns with the values of Lawrence to a T. Sign language is irreplaceably valuable to the people that use it and the fact that Lawrence does not teach it is a crying shame.