By Annemarie Payson
In this silent classroom, bodily movement does the talking and the words couldn’t be any more clear.
This is the everyday classroom lesson plan for Nicole Jones. No spoken words are ever exchanged between student and teacher.
“It really is the best way to learn American Sign Language,” Jones said.
Jones is one of the three American Sign Language instructors in the Department of Communication and Science Disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She is an advocate for spreading the awareness of Deaf culture and language.
While Jones has long been an advocate for cultural immersion and diversity, she did not know much about ASL or Deaf culture until her years in college.
“I think it is important in general to be exposed to all kinds of diversity“ Jones said, “All kinds of differences. I think everyone is the better for having some kind of interaction.”
Jones initially went to the University of Minnesota to become a veterinarian and took ASL as her language class.
“I ended up taking American Sign Language and totally falling in love with it,” Jones said.
From that moment on Jones knew it was something she had to do. Even while talking in everyday hearing conversations, her hands tend to sign.
“I completely changed my major to Deaf Education,” Jones said.
While still in Minnesota, Jones was making her way up in the professional field. She started at an interpreter referral agency. Businesses would request an interpreter and she would send someone from the company list. She then was given a chance for a new professional direction.
“I had an opportunity to teach sign language in a high school setting and fell in love with that,” Jones said.
Jones moved from Minnesota to Eau Claire and started teaching at the UW-Eau Claire campus and started teaching ASL and deaf culture in her own classroom.
“I think exposure and accessibility is super important,” Jones said on the topic of strengthening the knowledge of Deaf culture.
While the deaf community in Eau Claire is smaller than those of bigger cities with larger populations, Jones believes it is strong for this area.
“The Twin Cities themselves have a quite large deaf population among the whole country, so there may not be as many deaf opportunities in rural cities” Jones said “I think it is strong. It is just the way it is in a rural community where there isn’t a higher population of deaf,”
According to Galludet University, the leading deaf university in America, there are roughly 70 thousand people ages 18-64 living in Wisconsin who are deaf or have a hearing impairment.
With these big numbers of the state’s population being deaf or hearing impaired comes an even bigger shock that most people don’t know anything about Deaf culture. Or that it is its own culture to begin with.
Jones is trying to combat this problem by educating her students about Deaf culture through teaching them ASL.
“I just think diversity is so awesome. So this is a very diverse population and it is really important that those in the majority learn about those in the minority,” Jones said.
Her experience from living in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, has led Jones to see how beneficial participating in this culture can be.
“I think there is such value in the deaf community. Not ASL itself, but the community and I think we could all learn from that.” Jones said, “In the hearing community we could learn to be more engaged, have deeper relationships, and learn to be more sharing of information,”
One of the first introductions to Deaf culture that Jones gives her students in ASL 1 is there is in fact a difference from “Deaf” to “deaf”.
“The big ‘D’ Deaf is that they are proud to be deaf. They accept their deafness whereas little ‘d’ deaf is more like a clinical perspective. That there is actual hearing loss and they are trying to fix it in some way,” Jones said.
One of the ways to get involved and learn more about Deaf culture on the UW-Eau Claire campus is to join The American Sign Language Honor Society.
Clare Duncan is the ASLHS Secretary on campus and is a Communication Science and Disorders major.
“When coming into college it was important to me to take the time to take ASL classes because it is a language that is needed everywhere.” Duncan said “When being involved with their community, you are able to witness a whole different way of life. It is really quite beautiful,”
Just like Jones, April Schneider, a music education major, needed to take a language class and decided to take ASL.
“I think it is really cool because it is a language and a culture within our society and is one that doesn’t get talked about a lot,” Schneider said.
Many past and present ASL students have shared their knowledge on Deaf culture with those around them, helping Jones spread awareness.