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Silent Struggles

How ASL Students and Professors Have Dealt with COVID-19 Restrictions

student attends class on Zoom while on campus
A student attends a class through Zoom while on campus. While wearing a mask and attending classes through Zoom might be an inconvenience for some, for the ASL community, these restrictions have required major changes in the way that classes are taught.

Most people can relate with the complexities of wearing a mask. The increased volume needed to order in a loud restaurant. The inability to read someone’s lips in a conversation. That awkward moment when you greet a friend from distance only to realize that you are greeting a stranger.

Many are also familiar with the challenges of remote learning, from spotty internet connections and frozen screens, to accidentally going off mute in the middle of a class.

I think it's safe to say, we have all been there.

For most people, these experiences are passing inconveniences, but for deaf communities and American Sign Language (ASL) speakers, mask mandates and remote learning have posed major challenges for communication and language learning.

ASL is a spatial language, meaning that it is expressed by movements of the hands and face. Both remote learning and masks have been impediments in the teaching and learning of ASL.

Janelle Bullock, co-coordinator of the ASL program, said, “There's something that you can't replace [about] the classroom. ASL is a visual spatial language: we use space in front of us [to communicate]. Trying to get 3D content out there on a 2D screen, it's challenging.”

Bullock mentioned the common issues with Zoom, including screens freezing and trying to see the professor in a sea of Zoom boxes on the screen. Both of these issues make it difficult for students to clearly see what a professor is signing to the rest of the class.

ASL professor Samond Bishara was more prepared than most professors going into the pandemic. Bishara, who is deaf, works for Sorenson Communications, a company that provides video captioning for deaf communities. His background prepared Bishara to work and teach from his computer when the pandemic hit.

Bishara said, “Unfortunately, some of the students were not prepared for that change. Sometimes, the students. . . couldn't figure out how to get in on the computer. They had internet issues. Having all those boxes on your screen and trying to see all the students, you [can] get lost. From my perspective, it's fine, but for them, it wasn't as easy.”

Masks in class have caused other issues as well.
Bullock said that “not seeing the mouth and not seeing how words are formed” have been a challenge for all language learners, but especially for the students in the ASL program. Masks make it difficult to interpret the meaning of a sentence in ASL because facial expressions play a major role in the meaning being conveyed.

In order to help remedy this situation, Center for Language Studies (CLS) director Ray Clifford purchased clear face masks for not only ASL classes, but for all students learning a foreign language.

“We were so thrilled and so excited that he was thoughtful and generous and trying to provide for [our] needs. This is very nice of him to take care of some concerns that students would be able to see [the instructors],” Bullock said.

Despite these challenges, Bishara feels that the pandemic will be helpful to ASL communities in the long run.

“English, math and sciences were all [better] prepared for online learning. ASL tends to be well behind all the rest of them because the people that teach [ASL] are unwilling to do it online,” Bishara said.

“I think that COVID hitting it was a good experience for ASL teachers to go ‘okay, I have to change how I approach this. I have to figure out a way to do it’ and then you develop avenues in order to do stuff online through trial and error, which is always a good thing,” Bishara said. “It needed to happen because in our future, students [may] prefer to do things online.”

Despite the challenges of learning and teaching in a pandemic, the ASL program has made the necessary adjustments, but many professors and students look forward to the day that they can gather in classrooms and communicate unimpeded by COVID-19 restrictions.