The Gatepost Interview: Andrew Byrne American Sign Language professor

Allie Gath/THE GATEPOST

What is your background?

I was born deaf. My parents are deaf. My parents’ native language is American Sign Language, so I was exposed to ASL as a deaf child. I’m the oldest, and all of my siblings – all three of them – can hear, but they all sign. I was born in Ontario, Canada, and grew up in a small town called Perth. … I went to The Residential School for the Deaf in Ontario, Canada. I graduated in 1985 and went to Gallaudet University, which is basically the only liberal arts university for the deaf in the world. I graduated with a bachelor’s in history. Subsequently, I decided to teach at one of the colleges in Ontario, Canada. After that, I started working in a school for the deaf. … I worked there for 12 years as an elementary teacher, while also going to graduate school at McDaniel College over the summer. … My graduate degree was in deaf education.

What is your research about?

I went to York University in Toronto, Ontario. The concentration of my Ph.D. is in American Sign Language and ASL literacy and literature. Literacy typically focuses on reading and writing. It’s actually broader than that. It actually includes oral as well as print. In sign language, that would fall under the category of oral because there isn’t any kind of form of ASL that’s in print because it is a 3D language. So ASL literacy refers to the linguistics of ASL – how to present in ASL, analysis, studying the mind through the eyes, through observation, and how one expresses themselves through language and how they present themselves. So, it’s all related to the mind – not necessarily related to reading print. There are various genres of literature in ASL. There is poetry, there is drama and there is prose. I was collecting all the materials to synthesize what I was working on. What I was looking at was how literature was in taught in the classroom – specific to American Sign Language literature, not English literature. As you know, each country has its own literature, but I wanted to see what was unique to American Sign Language.

What was your undergraduate experience like?

To me, Gallaudet University is perceived as the Mecca – we call it the deaf Mecca – because it is a melting pot of various individuals from all different countries who are deaf that come to this university to study for their undergraduate degree. To be exposed and immersed in such a rich culture that ASL offers, it is just wonderful to see and share about deaf culture from different points of views and backgrounds. … As you may not know, ASL is not a universal language, and each country offers its own form of sign language. As a young man, it was fascinating to see all the different forms of sign language. At Gallaudet, in classes, everyone used ASL, but when people were just hanging out outside the classroom, that’s when everyone’s cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and personal stories were shared.

What was your favorite undergraduate experience?

Washington D.C. has the Holocaust Museum that’s near Gallaudet University – that was something I really enjoyed going to. While my bachelor’s was in history, I was more concentrating on war and the Holocaust. While taking in everything, it was an experience to understand how people survived, including deaf individuals. There were two deaf individuals who survived who wrote a book and I was able to see those. Often, deaf people are classified as a group of people with a disability or disabled people, and I always think about that. I would like to see the museum focus on deaf survivors rather than disabled people.

What would be one thing your students would be surprised to learn about you?

Many people are familiar with the terms sexism, racism, and so forth, which have a negative connotation. One of the things I teach my students about is audism, which is an attitude that supports a view that people who can speak are superior. Students are often shocked by it. … Alexander Graham Bell, for example, was very oppressive to deaf people and forced oralism on them, despite having a deaf parent and a deaf wife. Everyone thinks, “Oh, great, we have the telephone,” but then are shocked to learn about this other side of him. … Horace Mann, who created programs that helped form FSU, was similar to Bell. He felt all deaf children should learn how to speak and not use ASL. … Horace Mann didn’t know ASL and had no association with deaf people, but he came up with this idea to ban ASL in schools for the deaf. And I feel it’s important for students to be exposed to both sides of Horace Mann.

What brought you to FSU?

I was residing in Texas and teaching at Lamar University for several years, and my 18-year-old son was killed in an automobile accident in Ontario, Canada. So at that time, from Texas to Canada, I just felt that it was such a long way to get there. I had five children residing in Ontario, Canada – one passed away. I have four children in Canada. Due to that experience, I felt like I needed to be closer to my children. So I was looking for jobs closer to Canada, and FSU had an opening for an ASL professor.

What advice would you give to students?

Believe in yourself. Don’t feel that you can’t do anything. Give it your all and try. It’s unfortunate, but society looks upon deaf people as disabled. We have language, culture, community, history – we have all these different attributes that make us a cultural and linguistic minority, not a group of people who are disabled. So with that said, many deaf people believe they can do everything except hear. I expect that my undergraduate students feel similarly. So don’t let society label you or cast you into a marginalized group. So think broad, think diversity, believe in yourself, believe that you can do something.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted with an interpreter]

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