While UT has had a Deaf education program for a long time, it was not until four years ago that the university acknowledged the need to focus on American Sign Language and English bilingualism. It was after this realization that Cheryl Shahan (PhD) was hired as a clinical assistant professor and internship supervisor with the Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education.
“It was appealing for me with the new ASL-English program and their focus on social justice. I am extremely supportive of bilingualism and social justice, so it was a good fit,” Shahan says.
Raised in Ohio attending Deaf and public schools, Shahan received her PhD from Gallaudet College (now University) in Washington, D.C. She wrote her dissertation on teachers’ interactions with Deaf students in the classroom as it pertains to sex and gender equity. To this day, Shahan aims to provide information and knowledge about equities and social justice with UT students and interns as future teachers of Deaf students.
Through her primary responsibilities, which include teaching ASL level three and language development of the Deaf and hard of hearing and acting as supervisor for interns within Deaf education, Shahan is able to integrate social justice topics into her course curriculum. For instance, when hate speech was painted on the Rock recently, Shahan says, “That was the perfect opportunity to say, ‘Let’s look at this,’ and everyone was able to use their new language skills to discuss the topic, what’s wrong/bad about it, and what should be done differently.”
Shahan also talks about the importance of approaching her language development of the Deaf and hard of hearing courses through a social justice lens. She elaborates, “Realizing that language deprivation within school and society is pretty much the main issue with language development within the Deaf and hard of hearing is important.”
As of last year, ASL is excepted by all colleges to as a foreign language. As a result, Shahan says they get students of different majors taking their courses. “The students need to think about their role through their majors and their way to support other Deaf students. Not just take this class and throw it out the window. I want them to become our ally,” she says.
“This topic is overdue. There’s so much oppression. There’s so much negativity that has occurred that we need to take off.”
By taking Deaf education and ASL courses, Shahan says students become more understanding of the Deaf community. “Then, when I saw them in their internship the next year, oh my gosh, I was just bedazzled by how they were able to apply what they had learned in my classroom. And I said, you know, we really are doing good work. I give them all praise for that.”
With the onset of the pandemic, Shahan says the transition from in-person classes to online was not the smoothest. Due to the nature of ASL, students are required to keep their videos on during class so everyone can see them signing, but unstable internet connections and lack of proper technology posed a challenge at first. However, Shahan says she has learned to adapt.
“We decided to videotape the lecture so the students could watch it before class because so often when we were doing it live, students would say, ‘I don’t know the signs,’ and I would have to stop several times in order to help them understand what we were saying.” Since Spring 2020, Shahan has perfected her online courses to better accommodate her students’ needs and wants by reviewing course evaluations and adjusting the way in which she delivers course content.
“It is time consuming, but it’s definitely worth it. The turnout seems better because the students like watching that video repetitively or they’re able to pause, rewind, copy the sign, or ask classmates for help. It’s a blessing in disguise as we’ll keep [pre-recording videos] for future classes.”
Outside of the classroom, Shahan also works toward social justice on campus as a member of TLI’s Inclusive Teaching Task Force. She reflects on her involvement with the task force saying, “It’s really helped me kind of come out of a different perspective – that group perspective. That was good for me to learn from other faculty, and what they do with social justice, and how they manage equity and educate students differently.”
“In a lot of ways, we are teaching each other and learning from each other. That gives me a lot of better tools to support the team members, as well as my students.”
When asked where she wants to see the task force go next, she says, “I want to keep the momentum going of what we’re working on, and I don’t want us to settle. I don’t want us to say, ‘Okay, that’s good. We’re done.’ I want us to keep improving.”
Take for example, when Shahan first joined UT four years ago, she notes, “I noticed that many of the videos that were used throughout campus were not captioned. I would always respond, ‘Your video is really cool, but I can’t enjoy it because there’s no captioning. Can you please caption it?’” Shahan says that four years later, almost all videos being produced on campus are captioned and that has a lot to do with Dr. Eric Moore who serves as UT’s Universal Design for Learning consultant.
While UT is moving in the right direction, Shahan says the Deaf community needs more allies overall stating, “Find out what we need, what we want.” While moving toward captioning all videos is a great start, another change Shahan would like to see is having interpreters present at all campus events. “One thing about also being an ally is announcing if you’re going to provide any accommodation requests. That shows that you’re open-minded,” says Shahan. She gives the example of a recent event flyer she saw by Child and Family Studies which included a note at the bottom to contact CFS for such requests.
Shahan emphasizes the importance of learning basic signs which she states is also a great way to show respect. Ultimately though, Shahan says that like most underrepresented populations, one of the most important things one can do is bringing Deaf people into conversations being had around campus – from athletics and campus events to academic settings.
“Deaf people do not want hearing people to take over a conversation or to talk for them. We have a great Deaf studies team consisting of Deaf education, ASL education, and education interpreting. We have great faculty who know what we need.”
It all starts with offering a seat at the table.
Accessibility in the Classroom for Students with Auditory and Cognitive Disabilities (UT Teaching & Learning Innovation)