A Degree With a Difference

Sol Kang and her family left their native Korea and moved to Canada in search of better services for her Deaf brother. When she enrolled at Niagara, she discovered that the university offered courses in American Sign Language. She is taking the courses to better communicate with her brother and to learn how to help him become part of the area’s Deaf community.

Abdulmajeed Altamimi came to Niagara from Saudi Arabia to study business. He enrolled in ASL 100 simply to meet his degree’s cultural diversity requirement, but has become so fascinated with the Deaf world that he now plans to return home to work with the Saudi government and improve opportunities for the Deaf in that country.

Although she was less than a year from graduating, senior Kelly Pass was still not sure of her career plans. She enrolled in ASL 100 and found her passion. She was so inspired by her experiences in the class that she now wants to become an interpreter.

These are the kinds of stories Nanette Harmon, one of the two instructors teaching American Sign Language at Niagara, readily shares. “I’ve been delighted by the level of enthusiasm the students have for something new and challenging,” she says. “I’ve seen students who have embraced this whole understanding that there’s many ways to be Deaf, because we focus on people, we focus on how to interact with another cultural group that exists.”

For years, an introductory course in ASL was the only option for students, but demand for the course, and for additional training, led to the establishment of an undergraduate minor in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies last fall. Niagara University is the only institution in the area to have one.

“We have a sequence of five classes,” says Nanette, who joined the faculty when the program began expanding about six years ago. “Four of those are language classes and they all include some degree of information about culture. And then we also have a strictly culture class — American Deaf Culture. The whole minor is designed to give the kids the knowledge and the skill base that their competitors with the same degree don’t have. We like to call it ‘a degree with a difference,’ because if you take any major at NU, you can add ASL Studies to it.”

Nanette shares teaching responsibilities with Krista Rahelich, a speech pathologist who began teaching ASL at Niagara in 2003. Krista has been teaching sign for 18 years and has interpreted in the Deaf community. She says that she fell in love with ASL after taking a course and decided to continue to learn the language. “Having a linguistics background, I found ASL both beautiful and fascinating, which led me to pursue my education in ASL,” she says. “I truly believe that our passion for the language rubs off on the students and they in turn learn to love ASL and Deaf Culture.”

For Nanette, who holds a master’s degree in Deaf education and has been teaching ASL in some fashion for more than 30 years, ASL is a support language. An autoimmune disease she developed as a child destroyed her hearing, and in addition to ASL, she uses lip reading and a hearing aid to help her communicate. She says that she considers her work a ministry.

“It’s amazing to me that while this is the thing that I have to deal with, God has given me such an incredible outlet to focus on what I have and what I can do and not what I’ve lost,” she says.

Both instructors emphasize that being Deaf is a linguistic and cultural difference, not a disability. Their students develop a respect for the Deaf community and the skills to teach others general information about deafness as it relates to their chosen career field. “We’re not training interpreters,” Nanette says. “We’re just trying to create students who will then be the expert in deafness no matter what their field is. So they would be the go-to person, whether it’s in hospitality, education, business,criminal justice … we think it fits everywhere.”

On this Wednesday afternoon in February, about a dozen students have gathered in the Gallagher Center to practice signing during the first American Sign Language Social Hour of the semester. Nanette and Krista host it as a casual way to practice ASL outside of the classroom. Today,the students play games like Family Feud, taking turns fingerspelling their answers to questions about animals and places where people have tattoos. They were silent except for occasional clapping of hands, laughter, and the buzzing sound Nanette made when someone gave an incorrect answer. As the games went on, the group more than doubled and the hour came and went, evidence of the popularity of the course.