Signs of Broken Barriers

For a regular customer at Rudy’s Snack, the usual can of Big Red and bag of Hot Fries would not be the only treat enjoyed that day.

After months of relying on pointing and exchanging written notes, Rudy’s drive-thru attendant Blanca Barrientos decided to take customer service to the next level. She had spent the last week learning how to say the phrases, “How may I help you?” and “Thank you,” in American Sign Language to surprise a loyal customer, who’s deaf.

It worked out well, as Barrientos remembers her customer feeling so overjoyed at the first sight of her signing that he parked his car, walked inside, and completed the transaction in coherent ASL - something he never thought he would be able to do.

Motivated by her customer’s gratitude, Barrientos, a student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and president of the American Sign Language Club, continues pursuing a vision: to break the communication barrier between the hearing and deaf by equipping club members with basic ASL skills and educating students about deaf culture.

By challenging the term “disabilities,” representatives of the deaf community at the university are mending the distance between the hearing and deaf on campus. Barrientos says that her drive to advocate deaf education is inspired by a mistake in how she initially approached the deaf customer, and wants to prepare members for similar situations.

“I found myself talking louder whenever he came by, but I knew that it was wrong of me to do so,” said Barrientos of Edinburg, starting her second year as club president. “What we do is talk about the culture, and teach about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I don’t want anyone to repeat the mistake I made of trying to get them to hear me, so I just want for the members to be ready to communicate in the case that they have to.”

There are nearly 10,000 people who are either deaf or hard of hearing in the Rio Grande Valley and three are UTRGV lecturers, teaching students in complete ASL. However, with only 41 certified interpreters in the RGV, the need for more conversation about deaf representation is clear, says ASL Club adviser and Professor Rosemary Landa.

“The number of interpreters in the RGV has grown by only two since 2009, and this shortage has greatly impacted the lives of RGV DHH (deaf and hard of hearing) community members,” says Landa, who has been a certified interpreter for 17 years. “DHH individuals in the RGV are not guaranteed interpreting services, and when they are provided, a question of the qualification of such persons accepting these assignments is in question.”

Fall 2018 marks the ASL Club’s third semester. Having starting off in 2017, the group has doubled its membership and has 50 registered members this semester, according to secretary Raelene Vela.

“Our club has definitely grown,” said Vela, who is going onto her second year as secretary. “It’s been great having the club grow as much as it has, but I still want to use my officer position to continue advertising the club as much as I can because everyone – even if they do not know anyone who is deaf – should know about the deaf culture and it’s beauty.”

Membership numbers aside, the vision of the club has always been to promote deaf pride — even before it was an official organization, according to Barrientos.

“Our club was founded when we broke off of the Deaf Rehab Club,” she explained. “Our founder, Jesse Mendez, decided that having the deaf community represented by a rehab club is the opposite of what should be happening. We want to promote appreciation, not change.”

Barrientos says that the virtues she keeps while making presidential decisions are to prioritize getting students comfortable around the deaf community, and to engender respect for their culture. By implementing simple language lessons into the bi-weekly meetings and hosting deaf-awareness happenings off-campus, the ASL club is geared towards exposing students to the realities that face people with hearing problems and have them actively making a change to how our community accepts theirs.

The first barrier to break is the absence of communication. To get students to challenge their ASL skills, club members encourage them to attend their off-campus events at which Landa, whose parents are deaf, invites a network of local deaf people to have conversations with students who are still learning. There have been Volleyball Nights at Sonic and ASL Talent Shows, hosted by the ASL Club, and Starbucks Deaf Chats, organized by the RGV Deaf Community Center.

With a panel of deaf RGV residents, UTRGV professors and alumni, the ASL Club hosted their first Talent Show last spring, on campus. Featuring around 10 student acts, ranging from interpretive signing to songs, and original comedy skits, the activism for deaf awareness is present, says Landa, who has been an professor for five years.

UTRGV has offered ASL courses for the 15 years. With an average enrollment of 370 students and 16 to 18 sections offered per semester, Landa says saw a need for more learning opportunities and took action.

A new minor of study has been created for the fall, consisting of five ASL courses and a Foundations of Deaf Culture class. This is the first time students are being offered the new ASL minor, proposed and designed by Landa, who is the ASLI program coordinator at UTRGV.

“Student interest is high,” says Landa. “I’m highly student-centered, and it is extremely important to me that students not only pick up conversational skills, but also learn to respect members of the deaf community.”

On behalf of the deaf community, Landa is not seeking plaudit. She says that the respect she strives for is in the form of acceptance; acceptance of who they are as the deaf community and of what they have to offer.

“View the community as they are,” she said. “Don’t try to ‘fix’ them. Rather, embrace them for the contribution they provide to our biodiversity. Instead of viewing it as a hearing loss, view it as a deaf gain.”

Now that the new ASL minor has launched, Landa is determined to continue providing deaf education opportunities at UTRGV. Her original proposal, presented this spring, featured an ASLI BS degree, but it was denied by the University Curriculum Committee. Asked to start with a minor instead, Landa is optimistic about being able to present the full degree idea in the future.

“We are going to still shoot for the BS degree; hopefully we get approved for that soon,” she said. “Our community is grossly underserved, that is why I am pushing so hard for the minor and major.”

Though the program was rejected, members and leaders of the ASL Club continue to assiduously carry the vision of respect and acceptance of deaf culture onto campus.

In extending the ASL curriculum and elevating deaf awareness on campus, club member Vela contends that closing the gap between the two worlds is dependent on students’ courage to change the approach to deafness.

“It’s about getting over the fear,” she said. “Once you get over being shy about having conversations with a deaf student, or any person with a disability, your eyes get wider and you get a glimpse of how beautiful their world is.”