Last Updated: December 21, 2017, 3:53 pm

DSU nurtures American Sign Language culture, classes


People often communicate with strangers or with friends without even saying a word.

Those who understand American Sign Language know how natural speaking without voices can be, and for the Dixie State University students who are hard of hearing and use ASL, it is the only way they can speak.

Jarin Nelsen, a senior psychology major from Fallen, Nev., was born deaf and is graduating this year with a bachelor’s degree. He goes to class, takes notes and participates in class discussions — all without hearing a word. With a little help from an interpreter, Nelsen is just like every other Dixie State student.

Since moving to St. George, Nelsen said he is quite impressed with the size of the local deaf community.

Grant Pemberton, the director for the Southern Utah Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, said there are about 800 people who use ASL in Washington County. 

“ASL is unique because federal law mandates that interpreters be provided for the deaf and hard of hearing, so this makes ASL an attractive language to learn,” said Clint Behunin, an ASL interpreter for Dixie State.    “ASL is the fastest growing language class for universities around the country. Many high schools are also teaching ASL now and so students coming in already know a lot.” 

Jamie Petty, a sophomore general education major from St. George, said she loves the ASL classes she has taken at DSU.

“ASL comes easy to me, and it really is a lot of fun,” Petty said. “ASL is kind of used throughout our own language anyway. Everyone knows ‘I love you’ and ‘hang loose,’ and there are a lot of cool deaf people too.”

DSU language department chair, Leonor Ceballos, oversees Dixie State’s language classes. In ASL, four different levels of ASL are taught, with each course worth four credits.

The classes currently offered at DSU do not include any form of ASL interpreting training.

“It would be nice for DSU to have an advanced interpreter training class so that local students wouldn’t have to go elsewhere for training because there is always a demand for good interpreters,” said Mari Reeder, the owner of Interpreter Connection, a local ASL interpreter agency.

According to Dixie’s human resources website, Dixie is currently looking to hire a full-time teacher for the upper-division ASL classes. However, there is a concern whether or not that position will actually be filled.

“Funds have already been announced for the position to be filled, but a full-time position has been announced and unfulfilled in past years,” Behunin said.

Nelsen said those hard of hearing depend on the furthering of the ASL department at DSU and the St. George community.

“I enjoy when people show interest in ASL, but there are few people that have the special skills in ASL or have a special way to understand the culture,” Nelsen wrote in a text message. “And those special kinds of people always give me a deep appreciation for my language. The more they learn, the easier it is for deaf people like me to have access to social settings.”