Deaf Awareness Week: celebrating a way of life, and inviting others to listen

 Brice Christianson, an alum, and Erin Wiggins, co-coordinator of UWM's American Sign Language Studies Program chat in ASL during a visit at the Denemark Lounge in Enderis Hall. ASL students gather there weekly for a Sign and Dine.
Brice Christianson, an alum, and Erin Wiggins, co-coordinator of UWM’s American Sign Language Studies program, chat in ASL during a visit at the Denemark Lounge in Enderis Hall. ASL students gather there weekly for a Sign and Dine.

A nursing student who was fluent in American Sign Language, Brice Christianson spent a lot of time at Gundersen Lutheran Hospital as a phlebotomist working with deaf patients.

“I decided I enjoyed that interaction, and I really wanted to work with the deaf and hard of hearing rather than becoming a nurse,” said Christianson, who earned his bachelor’s in 2013 from UWM’s Interpreter Training Program.

UWM is a center for educating students about deaf education and culture, with Wisconsin’s only four-year American Sign Language (ASL) program and the Interpreter Training Program, the state’s only four-year bachelor’s degree that prepares students to become sign language interpreters. Both programs are part of the School of Education.

Christianson, whose parents are deaf, learned ASL as his first language while growing up in Appleton. After graduating from UW-Milwaukee, he worked as a staff community interpreter for Professional Interpreting Enterprise before accepting a job in January as a Staff Sign Language Interpreter for the Department of Public Instruction’s WESP-DHH Outreach (Wisconsin Educational Services Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing).

He said he never regretted transferring from Western Technical College’s nursing program to UWM, and changing majors from nursing to ASL/English Interpretation.

“I took a gamble, but it was the best decision of my life,” he said. “UWM gave me the perfect balance of refining my ASL and cultivating a commitment to the craft of sign language interpreting. Having teachers who were all fluent in ASL as well as leaders provided inspirational examples of being allies within the deaf community.”

The ASL program is growing, including many students who may not go into education but simply want to learn the language. Last year, more than 500 students enrolled, and there is always a waiting list for the basic ASL language courses, according to co-coordinators Marika Kovacs-Houlihan and Erin Wiggins.

“ASL is one of the four most commonly used languages in the U.S.,” Kovacs-Houlihan said. “There is a high demand for people who are proficient in ASL.”

One exceptional feature of UWM’s programs is that all the instructors are native ASL users. “Students are immersed in it from the first day of class,” Wiggins said.

The program attracts students taking it as a foreign language credit, as well as those in health care, criminal justice and social work, who may find the language helpful.

The beauty of the language attracts others. “It’s very popular with artists and theater majors,” Kovacs-Houlihan said.

The number of deaf and hard-of-hearing students attending schools with their peers, rather than special schools, has increased the demand for trained interpreters, said Pam Conine, director of the Interpreter Training Program.

In addition, deaf and hard of hearing individuals are increasingly moving into professional and leadership positions, creating demand for interpreters. New technologies such as the Sorenson VRS – that allows deaf and hard-of-hearing people to talk to friends and colleagues through an interpreter online – also offer opportunities for interpreters.

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