The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Bridging the gap: DePaul’s ASL club president aims to connect Deaf and hard-of-hearing students

Hayley Breines
ASL Club vice president Kes Eary, left, and president Sarah Hau, right, interact about the game they’re playing, completely in Sign Language during a meeting on Nov. 9, 2023. During meetings, a large portion of the time is “voices off,” meaning everyone has to communicate only in Sign Language.
Junior Sarah Hau describes her experience as a hard-of-hearing student at DePaul University.

Sarah Hau sits across the table from friends Maria, Ellen and Kes as they organize laminated pieces of paper in preparation for a game during the last American Sign Language (ASL) club meeting of 2023. Each of them quickly signs to each other before suddenly erupting into the raucous universal language of laughter. 

ASL is a visual language unique to North America that utilizes hand movements and facial expressions for communication. 

Maria, Ellen, Kes and every other meeting attendee can hear while Hau, the club president, was born hard-of-hearing. Most members are enrolled in ASL classes at DePaul and have varying levels of proficiency.  

“I love that part of me,” Hau said, a DePaul junior and English major. She hopes awareness of the club will reach others on campus who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. 

ASL Club president Sarah Hau addresses the club in Sign Language to explain the rules for a game on Nov. 9, 2023. Since Hau is so experienced in the language, many new ASL learners ask her for assistance. (Hayley Breines)

The World Health Organization says a person who is hard-of-hearing has hearing loss that can range from mild to severe while a deaf person’s hearing loss is defined as “profound, which implies very little or no hearing.”

Hau navigates communication with a combination of ASL, in which she is fluent, and spoken language with a hearing aid. She can decide to turn her hearing aid off when she experiences hearing fatigue as a result of the extra effort required to hear spoken language. 

Language, as a concept, was something Hau struggled with in the early years of her life and first years of schooling. Her parents initially decided that she would receive a mainstream education, meaning she attended public school alongside hearing peers.  

Many deaf or hard-of-hearing children born to hearing parents experience difficulties when mainstreamed due to language deprivation in early childhood.  

Language deprivation is defined by the National Association of the Deaf as “the lack of developmentally appropriate proficiency in any natural language.” It commonly occurs when deaf or hard-of-hearing children are only offered spoken language as a form of communication. This leaves the children with no opportunity to learn the fundamentals of communication as they are physically unable to understand the spoken language of their caregivers.  

“I was falling behind big time because I couldn’t speak English,” Hau said. “I would try but I didn’t understand the foundation of language.” 

Seeing the failure of mainstream education for their hard-of-hearing child, Hau’s parents made a decision that would change her life forever. By age 7, Hau’s parents had founded a deaf residential school where Hau would be immersed in Deaf culture and sign language.  

“I started picking up ASL within my first year,” Hau said. 

ASL Club members play a game of UNO completely with Sign Language during the last ASL Club meeting of Autumn Quarter on Nov. 9, 2023. This last meeting before break allowed the members to refine their skills and relax with ASL-friendly games and a study hall. (Hayley Breines)

Deaf residential schools provide an educational environment where both faculty and students are deaf or hard of hearing. They become immersed in Deaf culture and can form their own identity as deaf people living in a hearing world.  

Though Hau would only attend the residential school for two years, she considers it a fundamental piece of her life experience and one that builds immediate camaraderie when she meets other deaf or hard-of-hearing people. 

“I can be like, ‘Yeah, I went here!’” Hau said. “And so many other deaf people who have gone to schools can be like, ‘I had the same experience!’ and then it continues the connection.” 

At DePaul, Hau said she has yet to make that kind of connection with her fellow students but is hopeful that will change as more people learn about the ASL club. 

“I’ve never met anyone else who was deaf or hard of hearing,” Hau said of her experience on campus. She shares her story in hopes that others like her can say, “There she is!”  

Hau starts the recent ASL meeting with a brief spoken announcement, telling attendees what they can expect, but then the rest of the evening is “voices off.” The rule may initially seem daunting to students just beginning their ASL studies, but it soon becomes clear that written notes or desperate whispers of confusion will be compassionately overlooked.  

“It’s very open,” Hau said. “I want to have a more inclusive space for people, whether they’re in classes or not, to be like, ‘Oh yeah, ASL! Let me come learn!’” 

Hearing students Abbigale Swietlik and Elena Jane, both juniors, started taking ASL 101 class this year and have enjoyed their experiences at club meetings.  

ASL Club president Sarah Hau and the club executive board set up and lead a game where students have to come up with signs that include a specific hand shape on Nov. 9, 2023. ASL Club houses a variety of ASL learners, from very beginners to more advanced signers. (Hayley Breines)

“What I absolutely love most is how accepting everyone is of someone learning ASL,” Swietlik said. She found that people will sign more slowly for her so she can understand what they are saying.  

Jane also had advice for hearing students nervous about attending their first meeting. 

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Jane said. “They can be easily corrected, and many people are always willing to help out. The Deaf community is based around building connections with one another.”  

It is one thing to understand how important community is for deaf people. It is another thing entirely for deaf people to experience that sense of community. Hau says she has been told there is a privacy issue that prevents colleges from connecting deaf students with each other but wishes there could be some sort of compromise. 

Hau wishes universities could help deaf or hard-of-hearing students find others in their community to make attending college less of an isolating experience.  

“We all want to know where we are,” Hau said.  

Back in the Arts & Letters Hall, meeting attendees are divided into two groups. The leaders of each group are frantically writing down words on the whiteboard as group members try to remember signs that use a specific hand shape. Hau holds court, walking to each side of the room to verify the answers after the timer ends.  

She is amiable, sarcastic and witty. Each group boils over with laughter from her commentary on their questionable assortment of ASL answers on the board.  

Though this is the last meeting of the year, she hopes club members will spread the word to any deaf or hard-of-hearing person they know.  

“They’re looking for you,” she wants them to say. “Go find them!”

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