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'Language is such a bridge': UNC ASL club focuses on accessibility and learning

UNC ASL Club members practice their letters during a club meeting on Feb. 2, 2022.

While many choose to learn Spanish, French or other verbal languages at UNC, one group of students has taken a slightly different route. 

The UNC American Sign Language Club teaches students about Deaf culture, ASL vocabulary and other deaf-related content and media. 

“If you don't know someone, personally in your life, who is deaf or hard of hearing, it can be easy just to not to think about it or to think that it’s not really important to know how to sign,” said Rachel Phillips, a senior who serves as co-president of UNC’s ASL club. “It really can go a long way when you interact with somebody in their own language.”

Though none of the club members are deaf, the organization's members learn about Deaf culture by educating themselves on the history and different dialects of Deaf communities, watching deaf films and recognizing unique deaf cues.

Deaf culture refers to the societal norms, dialects, arts and values of the Deaf community, according to UNC’s ASL Club Co-President Emma Gerden. 

The ASL club welcomes all levels of experience and helps members learn vocabulary through a website called Lifeprint. The website allows members to work at their own pace and practice whenever they want.  

“Language is such a bridge to other people," said ASL club member Micah Baldonado. "It just felt really humbling to be able to learn more about Deaf culture and immerse myself in something that I totally wouldn’t expect myself to place myself in." 

Cristina Rodriguez, a first-year graduate student majoring in speech and hearing sciences, has been interested in studying ASL since undergraduate school.

“This semester, I have placements where I will be having patients that are hard of hearing or use ASL," Rodriguez said. "I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to join the ASL club and learn some sign language, since I never really had time in undergrad.”  

A main goal of the ASL club is to focus on accessibility within the Deaf community, and helping others see deaf individuals as equal communicators. 

Due to the varying levels of experience among club members, not many can sign fluently. However, executive club members say they welcome any effort and time dedication to the club. 

“Even if it’s just knowing a few signs like ‘How are you?’, ‘Hello,’ even that," Gerden said. "Knowing that alone as a hearing person already makes your community more inclusive and more accessible to people who aren’t able to hear. I think everyone should learn at least a few signs and you’re automatically able to communicate with this whole world of people you previously couldn’t communicate with.”

Co-presidents Gerden and Phillips have attended virtual and in-person "coffee chats" where they sign with local members of the Deaf community and others who are practicing ASL. 

“It was really cool to chat with people in the Triangle community,” Gerden said. “Just getting to communicate with deaf people that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

UNC’s ASL club welcomes new members throughout the semester. More information can be found at the club's Heel Life page

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