ASLI professor notes advances in program, hopes to end deaf discrimination
Had American Sign Language and Deaf culture professor Terrell Brittain grown up in the 18th Century, he wouldn’t have been allowed to teach, because in society’s eyes, he wouldn’t have been intelligent enough to do so.
In the the middle of Deaf History Month, Brittan recalls growing up in the small town of Orange, Texas, and thinking he was the same as everyone else, other than that his ears didn’t work.
It was during his junior year of high school while attending the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, when he was awakened to deaf culture.
“That’s when I finally identified myself as a person who was deaf and that there were all these other people who were deaf like me,” Brittain said. “That’s when I became motivated to learn and motivated to teach deaf culture and ASL.”
Brittain taught high school ASL and is now entering his fifth year teaching at UH as a faculty member of the American Sign Language Interpreting program. Through this program, a student can go on to be an audiologist, speech-language pathologist or an ASL interpreter.
“If we can have students and other people able to sign a little bit that would be really great,” Brittain said. “What I’d like to see is a completely ASL friendly environment where languages aren’t discriminated against so that UH becomes a model as a deaf-friendly university.”
Sharon Hill, ASLI’s coordinator, has been working with the University and the community to increase the reach of the program through various means such as increasing faculty size, the number of courses offered and student interest in the major. In the upcoming semester, there will be 20 students studying to be ASL interpreters.
“While the number might seem small, be aware that there are only 1,530 certified sign language interpreters in the entire state of Texas,” Hill said. “Only 190 individuals qualified to sit for the state of Texas certification exam last year, so 20 students means a great deal to this community and this profession.”
On top of that, the program has doubled its faculty and gained permission to relocate to the McElhinney building to allow for easier cooperation with University programs, Hill said. The program has also been working on increasing enrollment and interest in the major.
“When I began at UH, we only offered ASL classes during the fall semester,” Hill said. “Now we offer it every single semester and even have begun offering it in the summer due to demand.”
The ASL program now has four deaf employees on faculty.
“Having deaf instructors is paramount to creating an authentic learning environment for students interested in working with the deaf community,” Hill said.
Hill said the importance lies in exposing students to deaf culture. And just as the cultures of hearing languages have quirks and details, so does deaf culture.
“Deaf culture is very straightforward,” Brittain said. “Take a deaf person talking to a deaf person. They may go ‘Man Terrell, you’ve put on some weight, what happened?’ But (in the) hearing community, you would just say ‘Oh hi Terrell, I haven’t seen you in a long time,’ and in the back of your head you’re going ‘Man he’s fat’ — but you don’t say that out loud.”
Brittain operates his classes by telling jokes to make his points. He also tells stories about his life, experiences and his children, who are hearing and have been raised in deaf communities.
“I love the way the classrooms are held,” communications senior Jonathan Hubbard said. “There is no talking involved so it gives a different learning environment. It is silent but not the awkward silence that some classrooms have. It’s a silence that everyone understands and respects so it makes for a fun and unique learning environment.”
More changes have involved community participation in the program. Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Houston Rockets and the Hobby Center are just some organizations that now provide UH ASLI students with real-world experiences.
All these additions to the program’s structure are a part of a unified desire on part of the program’s faculty to increase exposure for the language and the culture. And that exposure has drawn in teachers, students and now money.
“Our program was recently awarded funding to provide test-prep training for individuals from all across Texas seeking to become interpreters,” Hill said. “This training will be held this August at the University of Houston, and we are proud to have been selected by the state of Texas as a leader in interpreter education.”
Brittain thanks his personal experiences growing up deaf for motivating him and his colleagues to expand the program and become leaders in interpreter education.
“I know there were a lot of times there were levels I wanted to pass and I was told I didn’t have to or I couldn’t, and so I didn’t try,” Brittain said. “Later I found out I could and went way beyond those thresholds.”
Brittain said issues like inadequate education, housing inequality, a lack of ASL interpreters and the inability to get jobs create obstacles against the rights of deaf individuals. He still meets parents who are dealing with schools where personnel aren’t available or teachers are inadequate in instructing deaf children.
“I consider that a form of abuse,” Brittain said. “Because it’s not fair to that child. This child is unaware of any skills they may have, and it’s not equality. It’s aggravating. Those who would look at us with pity often end up enslaving us.”
Working with these types of parents is another motivator for Brittain to keep making a difference on campus.
“That’s why I’m here teaching deaf culture in this class, to share my experience with these students to let them know what that discrimination looks like so that they are aware,” Brittain said. “Hopefully these students will take that information out to the community so the discrimination can stop.”