Mason ‘Signs’ On New ASL Program


Fourth Estate staff signs out “GMU” in American Sign Language

Savannah Norton, Lifestyle Editor

The College of Education and Human Development recently announced that there will be a new three-semester sequence of American Sign Language (ASL) courses that fulfill the foreign language requirements for Bachelor’s of Arts (BA) students.

ASL is a complete and complex language that engages signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and postures of the body. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), it is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Lynn Wiley is the Director of the Training and Technical Assistance Center (T/TAC) at Mason. The T/TAC is funded by the Virginia Department of Education through the Helen A. Keller Institute for Human Disabilities in the Graduate School of Education.  She assists in the development of the course.

“Over the years, [the Division of Special Education and Disability Research] have asked us if Mason might consider offering courses in American Sign Language,” Wiley said. “Recently, an opportunity to do just that came up and we felt it was the perfect time to follow through on something that we had always wanted to do.

Wiley and her colleague Nancy Anderson, both of whom have masters degrees in the education of the deaf, worked together to make this course become a reality.

“I think our collaboration worked well because we could bring both our expertise and our different perspectives together to develop the series of courses,” Wiley said.

The series of the three ASL courses can be taken for both undergraduate and graduate credit.

“Students will be able to immerse themselves in ASL during each class period,” Wiley said. “They will be required to delve into the history of Deaf culture and the Deaf community in the local area.”

The course offers students a chance to understand how important the language of sign is as a communication system. “If students are able to pass all three levels of ASL, they should have a good grasp of the language and be able to communicate well with others,” Wiley said.

Helen Row, a junior studying Communication, is excited for the opportunity to take these courses because she has a hearing disability.

“It has affected me my whole life, but I have learned to compensate for myself,” Row said. “I am very interested in taking ASL. I was actually planning on seeing if I could take it over the summer in Richmond and use it as my foreign language credit. I am excited and relieved to know I can take ASL at Mason.”

Row explained that she has been reading lips in conversations since birth and has learned to advocate for herself.

“Unfortunately my hearing disability is in the mid tones, so the use of a hearing aid does not always help,” Row said. “I am used to sitting in the front of classrooms, making my professors aware of my disability. I have my disability on file with the Office of Disabilities and I have gotten used to asking if people can repeat themselves.”

She even attempted to take a French course at Mason, but it proved difficult.

“I wanted to learn a new language however with a disability that causes me to not hear parts of words or not hear some words at all this was very difficult,” Row said. “I have been told my audiologist that my hearing may get worst with age, so I am excited and reassured to know there is a class I can take now where what I am learning I may have to use to communicate later in life.”

Although the three-semester sequence is new, some students are already taking the first course in the sequence, ASL1, this semester. Among them is Megan Bergquist, a senior and Events and Tourism major at Mason, who is excited to expand her knowledge in this language.

“I’ve always wanted to learn ASL and pretty much only knew the alphabet and numbers 1-10 from growing up,” Bergquist said. “Mason had never offered ASL as a course, which I thought was strange since we have such diverse campus and they offer a ton of languages. When I heard about ASL1 being offered this fall, I jumped on it.”

Berguist explained that her professor is hearing and has background with interpreting, along with a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) who is a deaf student at Mason.

“The class is taught in a pretty immersive fashion, where we rarely talk,” Bergquist said. “The professor will use stories and lecture to teach new words.”

According to Bergquist, the course encourages students to get involved with the real world deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

“It’s not how I thought we would learn, but it’s super effective,” Bergquist said. “We are required to spend time in the deaf community and write a reflection paper on it. This is exciting because it gets us into real world application of ASL, instead of just classroom instruction. The program is now expanding, and they will be offering ASL1&2 next semester, as well as ASL3 in the future. This allows students to become more efficient signers.”

Although ASL takes the same amount of focus and practice as any other language to increase one’s knowledge and skills, Wiley explained, there are some differences.

“The main difference between ASL and another language is that ASL is communication through the visual mode rather than the auditory,” Wiley said. “Things such as facial expressions and facial movement carry meaning. Additionally, ASL does not have a widely accepted written form, so students must be able to remember what they learn in order to practice and use it. Learning ASL will help students if they plan to work in any field that provides services to others such as education, medicine, social work, theater, etc. It will give them the skills to communicate in another language in order to better serve their students or clients.”

Row is excited to excel in a course that she has been patiently waiting to arrive to help her in the future.

“While I am not only excited to take ASL to take a language [that] I will not need my hearing to learn, I am also excited because knowing sign language is a skill that could set me apart later in life.” she said.

Row also agreed that Mason students will benefit from offering this course.

“As a student with a disability, I feel that Mason prides itself on its diversity and how the university treats its students,” Row said. “For someone like myself, I was discouraged that I had to take a foreign language class to graduate even when I knew I would not succeed as well because of something out of my control. I am overjoyed to know that students like myself can not only take a class that we can succeed in, but also may need.”