VOLUME 30, NUMBER 30 THURSDAY, April 29, 1999

ASL narrows the gap between cultures of deaf and hearing

send this article to a friend

News Services Editor

Born deaf and raised in a hearing family, Lee Dray spent the first 16 years of her life unexposed to the culture and language that now define her identity and career.

Lee Dray, shown working with a student, is the instructor for UB's new courses in American Sign Language (ASL).
Dray, who is the instructor for UB's new courses in American Sign Language (ASL), hopes to help narrow the gap between cultures of the deaf and the hearing, as well as expose hearing people to the deaf culture of America.

"I grew up in an oral environment, attended public schools and never knew sign language. I was not introduced to another deaf person until I was 16 years old," explains Dray.

When she was not accepted by her deaf peers as a teen, Dray realized that there was a distinct deaf culture, separate from the mainstream hearing culture, with its own rules, expectations and means of communication.

"The reason why I got involved teaching ASL is that the cross-over into other cultures is very difficult. I want to make it easier for both cultures to appreciate the other and help both hearing and deaf people better understand each other."

In Fall 1998, UB joined several other American colleges and universities that recognize the value and importance of ASL by offering two introductory courses, which fulfill the university's foreign-language requirement, through the World Languages Institute (WLI) in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Enrollment in the first-year, first-semester ASL for the coming fall semester is at capacity, with more than 50 students and several more on a waiting list, according to Mark Ashwill, WLI director.

"ASL has already demonstrated the potential for phenomenal growth," says Ashwill. "We also are offering an introductory ASL course this summer, which is almost at capacity."

The culture surrounding deafness, including the basic expectations, values and traditions, is what Dray exposes students to in her ASL courses.

"Naturally, students are quite nervous when they begin the course and don't really know how to respond," explains Dray, a graduate of Gallaudet University, the world's only university for deaf undergraduate students. She says she encourages students from the beginning of the course to use gestures or finger-spelling, rather than written words, to express themselves.

"We begin by covering how to approach a deaf person, what to do when you meet a deaf person, and so on," explains Dray.

"Students have reacted very positively. Some first come to class thinking 'O.K., this may be interesting,' but then they get really into it and realize how much there really is to learn. It really gives them more respect for the language."

According to Dray, the greatest challenge in teaching hearing students is that the hearing population is rather uncomfortable with touch and expression, which is essential to learning and communicating in ASL.

"I try to encourage students to use their facial expressions and to get them to be more comfortable using their body. They often think 'reading' sign language means just looking at the hands and focusing on one small area, but it involves the face, the eyes, the distance between the hands and the body and other body language."

Students in the courses are not allowed to speak verbally, use "English mouthing" or use other sign systems during class-even if it is to interpret another student-according to the course syllabus.

Dray says she takes advantage of the computer as a resource for the introductory ASL courses by using email to communicate with students and referring students to Web sites that support the classwork and offer insight about deaf culture.

One of the most common misconceptions about deaf people, according to Dray, is that deaf people as a group are disabled rather than their own distinct culture. The other major misconception is that ASL is universal; in fact, each country has its own version of sign language.

However, Dray explains that ASL has its roots in French, rather than English, due to the influences of Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, who came to America in the 17th century as deaf advocates.

Dray, who also teaches students at St. Mary's School for the Deaf, says the ideal ASL instructor has experience in both cultures, fluency in both languages and is able to teach in a second-language environment.

She adds that learning sign language is a benefit to anyone as a means of non-verbal communication. "Those who learn it are at an advantage because they can apply some of the principles to other communication situations."

Front Page | Top Stories | Briefly | Events | Electronic Highways | Mail | Jobs
Transitions | Q&A | Sports | Current Issue | Comments? | Archives | Search
UB Home | UB News Services | UB Today