a woman uses sign language to communicate during a virtual meeting

A Sign of Things to Come

Students, faculty and staff across campus work to continue making UA welcoming and inclusive to people who are deaf, culturally Deaf and hard of hearing.

A panel of speakers address an audience in a conference room.
Panelists discuss ASL interpreters in higher education at a recent Deaf awareness forum held at Hotel Capstone.

Campus advocates like Sara Grady, president of BAMA ASL, a student organization with about 97 members reestablished in 2021, say the first step is helping the hearing community be aware of and understand the Deaf community.

BAMA ASL participated in a Deaf awareness forum on campus this month and hopes to plan similar engagements soon, said Grady.

“Our biggest goal is education,” said Grady. “We were founded to better the relationship between hearing people and deaf and hard-of-hearing people.”

Along with the growth in education has been the increased interest of hearing students to learn American Sign Language. Tabitha Venable, an instructor in UA’s Critical Languages Center, is Deaf and has been teaching ASL at UA since 2017.

“I started with one ASL class with eight students,” said Venable. “Now we have four classes with a max capacity of 20 students. The classes fill up the day registration opens and sometimes we can do an override [to allow more students] if there is a reason.”

“I’d love to see more Deaf people on campus working toward their degrees at the best university in the nation.”

ASL is an extremely valuable personal and professional skill for any student, particularly those in majors related to communication, special education, nursing, medicine and more, explained Venable.

“Students should be able to learn basic sign language to communicate with people who are deaf or non-verbal such as those with autism/Asperger’s and so on,” she said. “ASL would be beneficial for them when they go on to work.”

Several UA community members are also working together to bring more ASL interpreters to campus.

A group of people playing Japanese drums.
Three Deaf members of the forum audience enjoyed feeling the vibration of the drums following a Japanese Taiko percussion performance.

The group of advocates includes former and current students; professors; the Critical Languages Center; the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; the Office of Disability Services; and representatives from several UA schools and colleges.

Dr. Kent Schafer knows firsthand the impact of having an interpreter. He has severe profound sensorineural hearing loss in both ears but identifies as culturally Deaf and uses ASL as his first language. He earned his doctorate in school psychology from UA in 2021 and is currently the only deaf person to hold that distinction from the Capstone.

“To be a student learning how to achieve in academia on top of the extra effort needed to advocate for my preferred accommodations was daunting,” he said. “Thankfully, my coordinator at ODS was receptive and willing to work with me.

“After the initial hiccups of learning about the quality of sign language and what constitutes an effective sign language interpreter, I was able to secure two interpreters and captioning,” he said. “This combination of resources was the first time I had a blended format to access the printed text of what actually is being said in the classroom and to engage real-time with sign language.”

ODS has contracts with several companies to provide interpreters to registered students who need accommodations, said ODS coordinator Amy Hagedorn. But there are times when interpreters are needed by other departments for campus visitors such as parents, and the service does not qualify as an ODS accommodation. It can be difficult to get a local interpreter on campus as quickly as needed, said Hagedorn, and departments may not have budget to cover the costs.

“While we will always provide an accommodation that is needed, it’s not something other departments can always be financially prepared for,” Hagedorn explained.

DEI recently helped lead efforts to ease that financial hurdle.

“After a series of meetings and discussions with The University of Alabama Deaf community and advocates, the Office of Disability Services and the provost’s office, there is now a funding source for interpreters,” said Dr. Christine Taylor, vice president and associate provost for DEI. “We are building a more inclusive and welcoming community by removing these barriers to full participation during our campus events.”

UA partners and advocates like Grady and Venable believe these efforts will continue to increase the accessibility and inclusivity of campus to welcome even more deaf, culturally Deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

“I’d love to see more Deaf people on campus working toward their degrees at the best university in the nation,” said Venable.

ODS offers numerous academic accommodations and resources. Visit the office’s website to learn more or to register for services.


Jennifer Brady, UA Strategic Communications, jennifer.brady@ua.edu