Despite its absence from UNC Asheville’s formal language courses, students interested in learning American Sign Language can join the university’s ASL club.
Andy Stein, a student at UNCA and the founder of the ASL club, advocates for the use of signing.
“I think it’s a language that people should be familiar with because within the deaf community it’s very often hard to reach out to the hearing well because sometimes a deaf person has fully developed speaking abilities so they have to commute toward signing,” he said. “I think learning sign language, at least even a little along with other languages, shows that you’re interested and it shows character within you.”
The club formed two and a half years ago according to Stein, who explained when a deaf person tries to communicate with someone who doesn’t know ASL, it creates more barriers for them.
“UNCA does not have an ASL curriculum. I think in the past years they were trying to find an instructor but they still couldn’t find one or it didn’t fit in the budget,” Stein said. “I’ve gotten that question so many times that I checked with UNCA and I didn’t know that they didn’t offer any sign language and I also didn’t know that they didn’t have a sign language club. I decided to start a sign language club because a lot of people wanted to learn.”
Stein is fluent in sign language and learned signing when he was a young child. Due to his deafness, his parents encouraged him to learn signing and he has been using it for 15 years. He said he started the ASL club mostly because people wanted to learn sign.
“For ASL club we try to follow a straight curriculum. We had the introduction, spelling, basically from the ground up. Ultimately in the end, members can gain valuable experience from coming to the club every week,” Stein said. “We like to use the words ‘No experience necessary.’ No matter where your skills are we connect the ones who are skilled and the ones that aren’t and help them teach each other.”
Stein emphasized that like any other language, ASL takes time and practice in order to learn.
“For any potential members, if you want to learn sign language and you don’t know where to start, ASL club is available now for everyone to learn,” he said.
“When you sign to a deaf person, that makes that person very happy that you know ASL. It brings joy,” said Alex Ear, a first year student at UNCA and member of ASL club. “It’s important to show support for people with disabilities and it seems that Asheville doesn’t have a lot of support. Thanks to this club we can teach other students here how to sign so if you somehow meet a deaf person on the street or somewhere else you know how to sign instead of avoiding them. If they need help you know what to say and how to interact with them.”
Ear is interested in becoming fluent in ASL and wants to be able to have a conversation with someone using the language.
“Our average club meeting is teaching them the very basic things: ABC’s, numbers, colors, shapes, how to spell your name, how to introduce yourself, basic conversations to practice with each other,” Ear said. “I really do think it’s important that everybody learns or knows the basic conversations so that if some deaf person needs help, you know what to say and just have a basic conversation.”
The ASL club also tries to introduce deaf and hard of hearing culture to those who attend their meetings.
“The deaf community is just as important as any other community. Whether you are deaf or not, it’s something that needs to be recognized, just as any other movement or any other group. It’s kind of a ‘We are here’ kind of message,” said Storm Dechant, a student at UNCA and member of ASL club. “People don’t necessarily realize that ASL has just as much culture behind it. It was developed as a means of communication for people who didn’t have anything else, who were originally forced to assimilate.”
After being a member of the club for a year, Dechant said learning sign language is easier than she thought it would be.
“ASL is just like any other language. I started learning ASL before I got here. I took an ASL course at Blue Ridge Community College online over the past summer. What I didn’t realize before I took it is that ASL is more integral to society than we think,” Dechant said.
The ASL club meets on Wednesdays from 5-6 p.m. in the French Broad Room in Highsmith Student Union.