Areas of Study

To Sign Is to Be Human

Logo courtesy of the Department of American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf Studies.

On September 24, the first “International Day of Sign Languages” event was held in the SLCC Atrium, hosted in partnership between the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies, the Office of the President, and the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). The United Nations selected September 23 as the official international day of Sign Languages, to commemorate September 23, 1951, the day of WFD’s founding.

ASL lecturers Niesha Washington-Shepard,06 G-18 (left) and Felicia Williams,12 G-13 (right), emceed the event.

President Roberta J. Cordano
President Roberta J. Cordano gave opening remarks.
“This is a very important day for us at Gallaudet, a first in the history of deaf people. We are everywhere in the world, our signs are found in all corners of the world, and this deserves a celebration. Sign languages are being studied, are being officiated and recognized all over, with proper research curriculums and verifications taking place,” said Cordano.

Dr. Arlene B. Kelly, 77 G-92

Dr. Arlene B. Kelly, 77 G-92,
ASL and Deaf Studies professor and department chair, welcomed the audience and professors who would be giving talks on their respective research.
“We, the ASL and Deaf Studies department, are excited to partner with WFD today and celebrate this recognition by the UN,” said Kelly. She emphasized that the department is already including everyone with sign language by providing GSR103, ASL for Emerging Signers, and ASL classes for Professional Studies, serving communities outside of campus.

Joseph Murray, Professor and WFD vice president
Dr. Joseph J. Murray, ASL and Deaf Studies professor and WFD vice president,
explained the mission of WFD and emphasized that International Sign Language is one of the WFD’s official working languages. “We are so thrilled,” said Murray.

“Around 70 million deaf people are in this world. Just under 2 percent of this population are educated in a bilingual setting. With the passage of International Day of Sign Languages’ by the U.N. on December 19, 2017, my hope is that this increased awareness will lead to positive change.”

Brian Greenwald, Professor and director of deaf documentary center
Dr. Brian H. Greenwald, ’96,
Department of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Sociology professor and director of the Drs. John S. and Betty J. Schuchman Deaf Documentary Center,
gave a brief history recap of the oppression and reassertion of deaf people in history, starting with the opening of the first permanent school known as the American School for the Deaf in 1817.

He explained the progressivism of deaf history from the early 20th century to the present day, emphasizing the reshaping of public education and how it helped deaf people succeed more.

Melissa Malzkuh, digital innovation and media strategy manager
Melissa Malzkuhn, 04 G-08,
digital innovation and media strategy manager, Motion Light Lab, gave an overview of lab work that she and her team has done, including her goal of building a digital global library. “Strengthening the deaf ecosystem and showcasing a digital skillset of emerging talent is essential,” said Malzkuhn.
“We are on the map now, due to all the apps and storyboards we developed over the years. To sign is to be human!”

Julie Hochgesang, Linguistics professor
Dr. Julie Hochgesang, G-07 Ph.D. 14, Linguistics professor, touched upon the importance of language documentation and strengths of connecting with the deaf community worldwide.

“Gallaudet has a strong international deaf community, and it is important to continue and maintain that relationship,” said Hochgesang. She showed a few samples of Kenyan sign language she learned during her volunteering stint with the Peace Corps there between 2002 and 2004.

Carolyn McCaskill, deaf studies professor
Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, 77, G-79 Ph.D. 05, ASL and Deaf Studies professor, gave a summary on Black Deaf ASL. “I never dreamed that I would be here, explaining about Black Deaf ASL,” said McCaskill.

“Black ASL is a distinct variety of ASL, and we still have more work and research to do.” She showed comparisons of Black and non-black ASL versions of signs, and explained how Black ASL differed from other ASL dialects. To learn more about Black ASL, go

Audience and hands waving

After the presentations, the audience joined together with a single message:
“With sign language, everyone is involved.” Mark your calendars annually on September 23
as International Day of Sign Languages!

Photos by Zhee Chatmon.

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