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Sign language club, deaf community spread culture on campus

Chase Gaewski | Asst. photo editor

Students practice sign language during Teresa Gavagan's American Sign Language class. Members of the SU deaf community hope to show others that sign language is just one aspect of deaf culture.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, Corinne Sartori’s name was misspelled. The Daily Orange regrets this error. 

For Corinne Sartori, sign language is more than an extension of the English language. It is part of a community.

The sophomore information technology major is working to show others that sign language is just one aspect of deaf culture.

“We consider ourselves able to do whatever we want like everyone else,” Sartori said. “Deafness is just one part of who we are and we are proud of it.”

She’s not alone in her mission, as there’s a push among many on campus to raise awareness about deaf culture and accommodations on campus. Sartori helped found the American Sign Language Club at Syracuse University, whose goal is to spread the word about accommodating deafness on campus and recognizing it as a part of a distinctive culture.

Club meetings, held in the Slutzker Center for International Services, are open to members of the community. Sartori said many hearing and deaf individuals from outside the university attend these meetings.

On Fridays, Sartori participates in deaf chats where she practices signing with club and community members at Panera Bread locations in Syracuse. The meetings are a great way to meet people and connect with others in the community who are passionate about deaf pride, she said.

But Sartori has recently begun to focus more on pushing for participation from SU students. She said she specifically planned the club’s meetings around the schedules of students taking sign language classes at SU so they could attend.

It will take time for the ASL club to be successful, Sartori said, but she is still hopeful it will leave a legacy on campus. Raising money to get deaf musical performers on campus for a “deaf jam” is just one of her visions for the club.

“We want to spread deaf pride in who we are, even with the hurdles we must overcome,” she said.

The ASL club is supported by the Disability Cultural Center, which opened last fall. The center, a unit within the Division of Student Affairs, coordinates campus-wide social, educational and cultural activities for students with and without disabilities on campus.

Diane Wiener, director of the center, attends many of the club’s meetings and helps plan events to get the club more involved with the Syracuse community.

Wiener said she believes there are ways SU can become more accommodating of the deaf community on campus. She said she hopes the university will, one day, have its own team of certified ASL interpreters on staff, as well as a closed-captioning provider, to serve the campus community. Currently, they both must be contracted from external locations.

Wiener said she is collaborating with others to increase awareness of deaf culture on campus and in the community. She is working with colleagues and student leaders to bring Rev. Kirk VanGilder from Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf, to SU in late October. VanGilder will give a sermon and a public presentation.

Michael Schwartz, director of SU’s Disability Rights Clinic and a civic leader in deaf rights, said the university has come a long way in becoming more accommodating to the deaf since he first arrived in 2001.

But he also said the university still has room for improvement.

“The university needs to do a better job of educating its people,” he said.

Top university officials, like Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Schwartz said, are very knowledgeable about accommodating the deaf. But individual departments, faculty and students need to learn more about the issues surrounding deafness.

While SU has two sign-language courses, offering a full sign-language curriculum, similar to that of Onondaga Community College, is another way the university can increase awareness of deaf culture, Wiener said.

“It is nice that we have sign language classes,” she said, “But it would also be great for students to have more options.”

Teresa Gavagan, who teaches one of the two ASL courses offered at SU, said she thinks sign language should be counted as a foreign language credit. The class is currently offered through the School of Education rather than the language department.

Both undergraduate courses, EDU 131: “American Sign Language I” and EDU 132: “American Sign Language II,” are very popular, and Gavagan often has to turn students away because the classes fill up so quickly. Many of those students either just take the three-credit course as an elective or petition to have it count as a language credit in their respective schools, Gavagan said.

In her class, Gavagan gave students a list of events going on in the Syracuse community in honor of Deaf Awareness Week and encouraged them to experience the events firsthand. She said she would like to see the university do more to recognize Deaf Awareness Week in the future.

Said Gavagan: “We want people to understand what it’s like to be a person in this community.”

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