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UMBC’s American Sign Language Club wants to be heard

Often, when people want to learn a new language, they start with Spanish or French. But Sign of Life, UMBC’s American Sign Language Club, would love to add ASL to that list. “Bringing back ASL has been a vision since our conception,” said Brandon Liu, a senior studying biological sciences and animation. “As of now, we’re focusing on educating the people that come to our two [weekly] meetings and share out ASL and Deaf culture there.”

Liu is the president and one of two founders of Sign of Life. He was taught ASL by the other founder, Ella Hawkins, when they were freshmen in the Honors College. Hawkins, a junior biochemistry major, had previously learned the language from a Hard-of-Hearing student that they were tutoring in math. Liu and Hawkins both realized that UMBC did not have any ASL resources besides interpreting services and decided to create the club to bridge this gap.

Sign of Life is now in its third official year. Sign of Life meets Mondays and Wednesdays during free hour in Sherman Hall 210. On Mondays, the meetings are more structured, with an ASL workshop that includes vocabulary, practice activities, grammar and information on Deaf culture. Wednesdays are more free-flowing with a Q&A style conversation format. When asked via email why it is valuable for people to learn ASL, Liu responded, “ASL is just as useful as Spanish in the US if not more so! ASL is … helpful for those that struggle with conjugation (there is none) and prefer to learn by doing (visual/kinetic experience). It’s easy to pick up and become effectively conversational … It’s also just a beautiful language, and it helps when you need to communicate in loud spaces.”

Along with teaching about ASL and Deaf culture, the club’s larger goal is for UMBC to one day offer ASL classes. But according to Liu, there are several obstacles that stand in the way of making this happen, one being that Community College of Baltimore County has an ASL program that creates competition. While CCBC is close by, if a student is not a county resident, the classes can be expensive. Regardless, Liu would love to see ASL classes on campus, and if not, then some sort of partnership between the two schools. “Unfortunately, I had to pay out-of-county tuition, so I would be really interested if there could be a system in place that UMBC could offer tuition to CCBC for studying ASL, in a similar fashion, I’m imagining, to study abroad,” Liu said.

One common question Liu is asked is if one needs to know ASL to join. His response? A resounding “no.” “We eagerly accept [everyone] interested in learning ASL or being more involved in the Deaf community, regardless of level,” he explained. Though the Vice-President, Terri Crosby, is a Child of Deaf Adults and the club’s Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Representative, Jack Burnett, is Hard-of-Hearing, the club does not elect officers based on ASL skill. 

Following the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, Sign of Life believes that because Hearing people are in a position of power they can make their communities more open to ASL. They have partnered with an organization called Deaf VISA that supports Deaf immigrants and visitors to the area. Deaf VISA also hosts monthly Game Nights, which are great opportunities to meet people from the Deaf community and are very ASL-beginner friendly. “We would love anyone interested in ASL to come join our club and be a part of our group, sharing and promoting Deaf culture and ASL,” Liu repeated. “Anyone with the passion can be a part of making this change.”