Students enter Michael Wallace’s American Sign Language (ASL) class, but instead of pulling out laptops or notebooks for notes, they use their hands to communicate.
The class begins like any other conventional environment for learning. Wallace has a quiz scheduled for the day, and reviews with his students a set of vocabulary words, not with words, but with his hands and expressions.
These students are part of a community of young ASL enthusiasts, eager to learn a new language that is fast becoming a vital skill used throughout the United States, including Hays County.
The Austin metropolitan area is home to around 15,000 people who are deaf or hard of hearing, paving the way for a need to bring awareness to American Sign Language, which is estimated to be spoken by around 13 million Americans.
Wallace, an ASL professor at the Austin Community College Hays Campus, said more schools are beginning to offer ASL as part of a language curriculum, bringing more awareness of the language to society.
Wallace, who has been deaf since he was an infant, lived in a small town in rural America, where the access to proper education was limited.
When Wallace was five, he attended ASL specialized schools, which helped him learn the language. Wallace graduated from the Illinois School for the Deaf and received his bachelor’s from Gallaudet University in Sociology and his MA from New York University in the field of rehabilitation/education.
“In my small town, no one else was deaf and schools did not offer ASL,” Wallace said. “But that has changed and there is more of an interest to learn ASL in schools.”
Wallace said the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin (TSD) currently has around 600 enrolled students.
The school, which was founded in 1856, has become a hub for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, with a mission stemmed in providing equal opportunities to those with the disability.
Here in Hays County, students at the Hays CISD can enroll in ASL classes. The county government also hires interpreters for events if those services are needed.
“We don’t have anyone on staff specifically for interpreting, but we will hire interpreters from companies like San Marcos Interpreting if someone attending an event requests there be an interpreter present,” said Shari Miller, human resource director for Hays County. “If those services are needed, we are more than happy to provide them.”
The interest in ASL is sparked in Wallace’s classroom, where students come together to learn a new language that is not spoken with words, but with their hands and expressions.
In one of his classes, students eagerly follow his instruction, studying and reviewing words, phrases, and sentence structure. Wallace cracks a joke with his students, and laughter erupts before they begin reviewing again.
The mood is lighthearted but focused, and his students are evidently engaged because of their passion for the language.