In the 1890s, Paul Hubbard, a quarterback at Gallaudet University, a deaf college in Washington, DC, gathered his team around him in a tight circle. Using this formation, he could communicate with his teammates without the other team seeing the plays he was signing to the rest of his team. And so, the now ubiquitous football caucus was born. Like other practices created by the deaf community, the origins of the football huddle are not widely known.
“There are a lot of things like that,” said Melissa Kate Adams-Silva, an American Sign Language (ASL) teacher, who is deaf and is teaching an introductory ASL course at the College this fall. She cited examples like closed captioning, which was created to support the deaf community but is now also used by non-deaf people. Her course aims to not only teach ASL to students, but also to educate them about Deaf experiences and the societal contributions of the Deaf community. (Some members of the deaf community prefer to capitalize “Deaf” in reference to deafness as a culture and reserve “deaf” for hearing loss as a medical condition.)
This summer, Laurie Benjamin, an ASL interpreter at the College, contacted Adams-Silva about teaching ASL as a critical language course. Adams-Silva took the job, as long as she could teach remotely, given that she was already teaching at several other colleges in the area via Zoom.
“They told me it’s been about 30 years since the city, or Williams College, was looking for a deaf instructor,” Adams-Silva said. Two students signed up for an online ASL course at Gallaudet University last year, but this is the first time the course has been taught by a College faculty member after years of trying. led by students.
Adams-Silva began the course this fall by immediately immersing students in ASL, instructing them to use noise-canceling headphones to reduce their hearing addiction. “We start the course without any voices,” Adams-Silva said. “I used an interpreter on the first day so that you are fully immersed right away and have a feel for how to use an interpreter. Most people come not knowing what to do.
Adams-Silva also uses a textbook for her course, but her primary learning goals for the course go beyond understanding the mechanics of sign language. “My first hope is that they appreciate that, that they find a connection to the community, whether it’s being a teacher, an advocate, [or] someone who just wants to raise awareness,” Adams-Silva said. “A lot of the time in the first two weeks people are like, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this since birth?'”
“There’s a lot of our history that’s really rooted in the hearing world, but hearing people aren’t aware of that,” she added. “You have gained so much from us and our fight to break down barriers.”
Adams-Silva also strives to learn outside of class. Later in the semester, she envisions her students interviewing members of the local Deaf community, engaging in “paint, sip, and sign” parties (a casual art class where participants communicate with ASL) or participate in game nights that incorporate ASL. Its goal is for students to engage with Deaf culture beyond the classroom and to better understand and empathize with the Deaf experience.
“I don’t want you to get out of your papers or your thoughts — I want you involved in it,” Adams-Silva said. “You may have experienced something similar, but in a different culture, a different community, or a different situation.”
Adams-Silva currently only offers a one-year introductory course that requires a full year of study to receive credit, but she expressed hope that interest in ASL classes would continue to grow. grow in the years to come as more and more people become aware of the class. Adams-Silva also noted that there will be an ASL table this semester, open to all students who want to learn and practice the language.
“What’s been rewarding for me is seeing people get involved,” she said. “I have heard so many [past students], even after the semester is over, about its impact on their lives. They didn’t think it would be the case, but it was with their children at home or with their work.
She went on to note that broader efforts towards diversity, equity and inclusion must include Deaf communities. “People keep forgetting about us,” she said. “They don’t know that they’re excluding us or that there’s a thing called audition privilege… [There are] so many ways to get involved in the deaf community, but the first is awareness.