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 When Talking Becomes Dance

Kelli Kowalski, Tori Clark and Annie Heggernes are part of the group of first 30 UMD students to minor in deaf studies.
“Sign language is like a hidden treasure.  I want to tell everyone about it and express to people that it really enriches your life. The expression is so beautiful,” said Tori Clark.
Nancy Diener, a faculty member in the deaf studies program teaches the advanced ASL classes.

UMD Offers a New Deaf Studies Program

In Fall 2008, UMD launched a new minor in deaf studies and immediately the classes filled and students were put on waiting lists.

Communication major and deaf studies minor Tori Clark explained the attraction to the program, “The expression of sign language and interpreting is like a dance. People who sign use their entire bodies from their head to their toes in the conversation. It’s a visually rich experience where we actually see the language.”

Most people are familiar with interpreters using American Sign Language (ASL) at lectures and speeches. Not many have seen an interpreter at a musical performance. "They sing with their hands. Their bodies, arms and hands sway in time with the tune and they sign with rhythm," said Clark. "Deaf people can feel the vibration of the music. When that is added to an interpreter signing the lyrics for the music, it is a moving experience."   

The Deaf Studies Minor, part of the College of Education and Human Service Professions, strives to educate students about the deaf community and ASL. ASL is present in every realm of modern life, as deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind people seek education and equitable employment. The UMD programs offers ASL competency and cultural knowledge especially for individuals who wish to communicate with employees, co-workers, family members, and friends. The minor also meets the needs of students interested in pursuing further study in sign language interpreting or deaf education. Students can take five sections of ASL from beginning to advanced. Additional courses include Linguistics of American Sign Language, Deaf Culture, and an American Sign Language Skill Building Workshop.

Communication science disorders major and deaf studies minor Kelli Kowalski said, “You don’t have to travel outside of Duluth or even Minnesota to realize that deaf culture is prevalent in every city.”  The statistics prove her point. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that approximately 34 million Americans have significant hearing loss and of these, almost six million are profoundly deaf.

Kowalski said she was amazed to find out there is an entire deaf culture hidden from the non-deaf community. Being deaf means more than living in a world without sound. It means belonging to a close-knit, supportive community. It means learning about a rich history and a beautiful language.

Because the language has a different syntax and grammar, it changes the way ASL users think. Kowalski said, "There is a timeline on your body that shows the past, present and future." ASL allows deaf and hard of hearing people to become skilled at storytelling. They have a common sense of pride in their culture and language and there exists a rich heritage in the ability to overcome adversity as individuals and as a group.

Although the path to the final implementation of this minor hasn’t been a smooth one, the dedication and strong participation of UMD students propelled it into existence. ASL classes started at UMD in the mid 1970s.  There was a desire to expand the program and add classes. The expansion proposal got approved at preliminaries, but got discarded because of budget issues in 2001.

That's when UMD students got involved. In 2007, students in the organization Access for All decided that more ASL classes were necessary.  They rallied a public forum and petitioned over 1,400 signatures, which pushed forward approval for the minor. 

Nancy Diener, a faculty member in the deaf studies program teaches the advanced ASL classes. She said, “We always had good enrollment for ASL classes, but there just wasn’t enough funding for full-time faculty. Now that we have a minor with faculty dedicated to the program, it is great for students. Especially in human services, students can see a direct application of ASL.”  According to Diener, the minor is successful. There are already 30 UMD students who declared a Deaf Studies Minor.

For UMD Communication major and deaf studies minor Annie Heggernes, learning ASL is an ongoing process.  “The first time I knew I wanted to be an ASL interpreter was when I shadowed my cousin who is an interpreter for a first-grade austic and deaf boy. His parents don't know ASL so everything he learns about language is through her, and that’s powerful.”     

Diener said, "For each student, the reason to take ASL classes is different. They might be influenced by a relative or friend; there might be a desire to help others; or it might simply be an opportunity to learn another language. One of the pre-med students told us he took ASL instead of German because he could see a real application in medicine. He wanted to be able to connect directly with deaf patients." 

Whatever reason students have for minoring in deaf studies, the sign language classes at UMD are giving students the chance to develop an important cultural perspective.  

Written by Communication student Ann Lichtenberg


UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
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