By Hannah Neumann
If the world fell completely silent, if birds ceased to chirp and sirens became only a blur of lights flashing through traffic, most would find their worlds completely shaken. But for some, this silence is all they have ever known.
This week on Baylor’s campus, in the Waco community and across the nation people will participate in Deaf Awareness Week, which aims to increase public awareness of deaf issues, people and culture.
Deaf Awareness Week, also called International Week of the Deaf, is an annual celebration focused on bringing individuals together as a community for both educational and celebratory purposes.
Dr. David Garrett, communication sciences and disorders department chair, said Baylor’s reputation as an advocate within the deaf community has climbed yearly due to the establishment of the Deaf Education Program in 2005.
“Our department is very involved with the deaf community and with promoting the deaf culture,” Garrett said.
Lori Wrzesinski, senior lecturer of American Sign Language, said she and a colleague started the Deaf Education Program at Baylor to provide students with the ability to work hands-on with deaf children in a K-12 setting as early as their freshman year.
Wrzesinski said when she joined the program in 1993, Baylor had just begun to offer two levels of ASL. Through the work of Wrzesinski and colleagues, the program grew to eventually offer third and fourth levels, as well as a host of other opportunities, including the establishment of an interpreting minor.
“Along with the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities and the interest of students, we set up a minor in sign language-English interpreting,” Wrzesinski said. “We were pretty successful and actually several of our students passed the state interpreting exam.”
While anyone at Baylor with an interest in ASL can engage in the interpreting minor, the deaf education major typically prepares students for becoming certified sign language interpreters.
“The Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities envisions a state where people with disabilities have the opportunity to enjoy full and equal access to lives of independence, productivity and self-determination,” according to the Office of the Governor‘s website.
Through the Deaf Education Program, Garrett said students spend their last year with an internship through one of the program’s partners, which is frequently the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin.
“For a full semester these students are working with a teacher in a classroom with deaf children,” Garrett said. “It is a fabulous experience and we’re very fortunate to have that relationship with the Texas School for the Deaf.”
Garrett said learning ASL is different from other languages at Baylor in that it is all visual, meaning there is no speaking during instruction after the first day of classes.
“What this does is it immerses these kids into the sign language so that they actually learn to use it in a normal fashion,” Garrett said. “I see these students out in the hallway talking to each other and having big discussions out there using sign language and it’s fascinating to see how sophisticated our students are today in the sign language world.”
Although deafness is technically a disability, lacking the ability to hear isn’t a problem, it’s just a different way of being, Garrett said.
“Not having hearing is not a disability, and we should not view it that way,” Garrett said. “I think one of the biggest challenges is for the hearing community to be able to better understand the deaf community. The more information that we can get out to the hearing community to understand deaf culture and understand where they are coming from, the more we can really see the way that the deaf community thinks and it will help us understand how we can best interact with them in a very positive and forward-thinking way.”