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Students advocate to get sign language classes back to the U of C

By Cristina Paolozzi, August 24 2021—

As classes begin again for a new school year, many students will be deciding which courses to take to fill up their schedules. 

For Aurelle Crerar, a fourth-year linguistics student at the University of Calgary, she felt it important to address the lack of American Sign Language (ASL) classes offered on campus.

Crerar is the current vice-president operations and finance for the Faculty of Arts Students’ Association (FASA) but has been a member of FASA for the past two years, sitting as the School of Languages, Linguistics Literatures and Cultures (SLLLC) department representative. During her VP OpFi campaign, she committed to bringing awareness to the deaf and hard of hearing community by advocating to bring ASL classes back to campus.   

Crerar said that ASL classes are still listed on the course selection for SLLLC, but haven’t been offered for a number of years. The two courses she is trying to bring back are ASL 201 and ASL 203. While these courses haven’t been available, Crerar said that student interest for ASL courses are high.  

“I am a member of Verbatim, which is the undergraduate linguistics club, and I had reached out there just presumptively,” said Crerar. “And the outreach that we got just in the Verbatim club was quite astounding, so there was a lot of opportunity there to make some change and bring some classes back.” 

Crerar said that bringing back ASL classes to campus would afford many new opportunities to students in different career paths, and that it’s not usually something people think about until they’re in the field. 

“There are so many careers and there’s so many fields that you can go into that sign language is applicable — education, social work, nursing, anybody that’s in SLLLC would benefit from an ASL class,” she said. 

The U of C also has an ASL club which serves as a space for people to develop their ASL skills, meet new people and learn more about Deaf culture. They host casual conversations, game nights, information sessions and more throughout the school year. Crerar said that she has been in contact with the co-presidents of the ASL club to help facilitate her advocacy work.

“I’ve chatted with the co-presidents of the ASL club and how they really struggled to bring awareness to the topic of Deaf and hard of hearing people and how difficult it was this past year for them to actually actively participate in Zoom classes,” she said. 

Emily English, Izza Athar and Brandon Huynh are executives with the ASL club. English and Athar are the co-presidents and Huynh is the vice-president operations and finance this year. 

As all three executives use resources such as interpreters or software to help support them at the university, they said that online learning through Zoom was challenging. English said she uses a program called CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) where someone would manually type what was happening in lecture and the information would appear in a separate window. 

“On a single computer screen I would have to have my Zoom meeting, CART captions, notes documents and any other necessary windows open simultaneously, making it incredibly difficult to keep up with lecture material,” said English. “I am thankful that it was possible to arrange CART remotely, but it was definitely a hassle and I found myself really struggling to maintain my GPA through online classes. I did find that professors were more understanding of my situation online, which was a plus.”   

Huynh said that he personally struggled to keep up with the translators he used while attending Zoom sessions. 

“When the pandemic hit and the university switched to online delivery method, I personally struggled to adapt to this,” he said. “As a Deaf person, I mainly rely on ASL interpreters for lectures, and I had to watch the interpreters on my small laptop screen for hours and hours, which led to faster listening fatigue — which is ironic but is very real when it comes to Deaf people watching interpreters and having to process and understand the information quickly through our eyes. It was also frustrating when the connection was not stable and that I was not able to have access to all 100 per cent of the information in lectures due to the interpreters either missing information or losing connection directly.”  

Athar said that learning ASL is beneficial and that ASL classes on campus would help people develop what she considers an essential skill. 

“It would be nice to see ASL classes that allow anyone to join out of interest, regardless of what their reason may be, even if they are doing it for a credit or someone they wish to use ASL to communicate with,” said Athar. “Also, it would be helpful for people to learn ASL as an essential skill in case they meet anyone who is Deaf or hard of hearing, who wish to use ASL to communicate instead of writing or typing in their phone.”

Crerar said that she is working in connection with the director of SLLLC, Dr. Mark Conliffe, to tackle the two major things needed to provide these ASL classes. 

“Obviously, there’s two things that we need to work on when we talk about bringing these classes back — one is student interest and the second is getting a qualified professor to teach it,” said Crerar. “I decided that I would take on the student advocacy route and I would look into getting as much word and buzz about it as possible, and [Conliffe] would look into seeing what he could do to get a qualified professor to come teach. We’re aiming to have the classes start for the 2023 school year.” 

English said that having ASL courses available to students on campus will not only open opportunities for students to know more about the culture and language associated with the Deaf community, but is also a way for students to fit ASL courses into their busy schedules. 

“ASL classes on campus would give students like myself opportunities to learn a language that is fully accessible to them,” she said. “For-credit ASL classes allow students to fit these courses into their degree programs and use student aid to enrol in them. It can be very costly to take formal ASL lessons outside of school, and these classes can interfere with school scheduling.” 

For students looking to help Crerar with this initiative, she encourages people to take a survey she created to give student feedback for course planning that takes place in November. 

“The survey is meant for both students that will be graduating this year or they’re still going to be at school for the 2022-23 school term,” she said. “Even if you graduate and don’t have the opportunity to take the classes when we’re hoping to bring them back, there’s still parts of the survey that are meant for their feedback specifically.” 

Both Huynh and Athar say that the best thing students can do to support their peers who use ASL is to recognize the importance ASL has in connecting with others and to understand how to promote inclusivity across the campus community. 

“Some Deaf peers are struggling to try to make friends with hearing people — they want to intimately connect with them since they have been lonely being surrounded by hearing family or hearing people in general that don’t interact with them due to their language deprivations or too much work,” said Athar. 

“There is one main thing that I would like the other students to be aware and be in support of, is to recognize how much accessibility means to us, the Deaf community,” said Huynh. “Promote the use of ASL interpreters in group meetings and clubs, events. Be more inclusive — find other suitable alternatives if ASL interpreters are not possible, such as offering captions, or having all participants talk through written communication.” 

Crerar mentioned that she will be keeping the survey open for as long as possible, but encourages students to fill it out before the end of September. 

For more opportunities to practice and engage with ASL, visit the ASL club’s page on Instagram, Discord or Facebook. People of all skill levels and backgrounds are welcome to join the ASL club. This can be done by messaging them on any platform or joining through ClubHub. Huynh also has an Instagram account where he explains aspects of the Deaf community through videos. To take Crerar’s survey, fill it out online

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