Critical conversations: ASL Club hosts Deaf Awareness Panel

No words were spoken verbally on the DPAC stage during the second annual Deaf Awareness Panel hosted by the American Sign Language (ASL) Club – but they were signed.

On Oct. 22, six members of the local deaf community were invited to explain challenges they face regularly, and communicated with the audience only by American Sign Language and a pair of interpreters.

ASL Club secretary Emily Pacheco said this is the largest crowd yet. She also said this is the first year for ASL Club at the University.

The panelists were first asked, “What does it mean to be Deaf to you?”

Edgar Herrera, a business manager at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said he was born in Guatemala, and didn’t go to school until the age of 9 because of his deafness.

Herrera said, “I couldn’t communicate, but I used common sense.” Lacking sign language, Herrera said he developed his “own system” to communicate.

He said he didn’t understand why his younger brother went to school before him – but that all changed when Herrera began studying at the Guatemala School for the Deaf.

At the school, Herrera said he learned how to sign and about the deaf community.

Charley Thornton, a Deaf interpreter, said he hasn’t really “known any other way.” He said Deaf people have “their own culture and community.”

Patrick Costello, outreach manager at The Learning Center for the Deaf, said hearing people listen with their ears and talk with their mouths, while Deaf people listen with their eyes and talk with their hands.

Costello said, “I have everything you have, but a different way to communicate.” He said this comparison puts the Deaf and hearing communities on a level playing field.

Bruce Bucci, an ASL professor at FSU, said he has learned to be patient with diversity.

Bucci asked the audience, “How many of you love to text?” A large portion of the audience raised their hands. Bucci added, “Deaf people helped with that!”

The panelists were asked, “What are some stigmas you face often or daily?”

Thornton said it is easier to communicate in foreign countries because he is used to gesturing. However, he had a difficult time finding a bathroom at a gas station in the U.S. because no one understood his usage of gestures.

Costello said miscommunication is common because the Deaf community is small, while the hearing community is “enormous.”

About 20 years ago, Costello said he wanted to become a teacher for Deaf students. He compared programs at several different colleges with education programs.

During that time, there were 120 Deaf studies graduate classes in the U.S., Costello said. Some required students to take one “special education” class, which covered all disabilities.

He said textbooks for the special education programs may have been 50 to 100 pages and sometimes listed Deaf under “communication disabilities.”

“There’s no focus on the deaf community, culture, ASL … nothing!” he said.

Costello said while he was a student at Gallaudet College, an institution for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington, D.C., students protested in a campaign called “Deaf President Now” in 1988. Of the three candidates for the new college president, only one was deaf.

One of the hearing candidates was selected as president, Costello said. As a result, the students locked the campus gates with bicycle chains and “took over.”

The students demanded the chair of the board resign because the chair said a deaf president “couldn’t run the university well,” said Costello. Also, the students demanded the board be comprised of at least 51% deaf members.

Bucci added there is a need for more qualified interpreters.

He added the Deaf community cannot teach everyone to be aware of their challenges. But for Bucci, Deaf awareness is “365 days a year.”

The panelists were asked about their experiences with interpreters.

Herrera said he was supposed to speak at an FSU Latinx heritage month event, but there was no interpreter.

When Herrera brings his son to the doctor, his son is asked to interpret, he said. “I need a professional interpreter.”

Sabrina Rodrigues, a student at The Learning Center for the Deaf, said doctors use “video relay interpreting,” which is “brutal” in her opinion because it stops working frequently.

“I would rather have my own interpreter,” she said.

Sandy Martins, one of the panelists and mother of ASL Club president Kelsey Carvalho, said Disney World has interpreters, but she had difficulty scheduling one for Sea World.

Thornton said traveling “can be a great experience, or it can be just hell,” he said.

He also spoke from experience as an interpreter. He said he must fit himself into other people’s schedules. “But what if there’s an emergency? Somebody can’t put an emergency on hold” and wait for an interpreter.

As a Deaf interpreter, Thornton said he works with a hearing interpreter to help translate. Since his first language is ASL, he can clarify for the Deaf when a message is unclear.

Thornton said it can be mentally exhausting to interpret and juggle multiple languages.

Bucci said there are problems with vocabulary. He asked, “What interpreters here know calculus?”

As a student, Bucci said it was easier to read textbooks than watch interpreters fingerspell every complicated term.

“It is three times the amount of work,” he said. “They’re making us look like dopes who can’t understand my jargon.”

He said The Learning Center for the Deaf is testing out new signs for specific terms. “Interpreters have to be involved with the Deaf community – not just show up, sign, and leave,” he said.

The panelists were asked, “If you could tell hearing people one thing about being an ally to the Deaf community, what would it be?”

Bucci said the hearing need to respect ASL and Deaf culture. “There are so many things that need to happen to make this work,” he said. “Be yourself – don’t be a Deaf wannabe.”

Thornton said the Deaf and hearing communities need to build bridges and meet halfway between spoken language and ASL.