An inclusive student-led initiative alongside Student Services introduces ASL to the university.
By Ilenia Reale / Matthew staff
JOHN CABOT UNIVERSITY — Students, faculty, and staff attended the new American Sign Language (ASL) seminars offered for the first time at JCU. From Sep. 28 to Nov. 2, the student-led workshops took place on Tuesdays in Aula Magna from 4:45 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and streamed online. The initiative is planned to continue.
The seminars were led and conducted by two JCU students with ASL experience: Belén Ribulotta, a senior International Affairs major, and Moya Seneb, a junior Psychology major. The organization and logistics were coordinated by Student Activities Coordinator, Federica Bocco, and Student Services Assistant, Sara Rosini.
Ribulotta’s sister Virgina is an ASL interpreter and assisted the seminars, while freshman International Business major, Clark Barrett, the first deaf student to join JCU, also provided support throughout the semester.
According to Barrett, the ASL seminars are a good way to introduce hearing people to a different perspective and to remove, for the most part, the barrier between the hearing and deaf worlds.
The seminars covered a variety of topics useful for basic interaction, such as the alphabet, numbers, greetings, locations, and school vocabulary.
“Once you know the basics … you already know quite a bit,” said Seneb.
In every seminar, Ribulotta and Seneb showed how to sign different words with the help of a PowerPoint, and then left time for the participants to practice with one another.
Barrett said that he was present at every seminar as a point of reference.
“Since I know more ASL, I am able to verify with Belén and Moya that what they are teaching is accurate, and I sit nearby to help them make sure [everything is correct] during the workshops,” said Barrett.
The first seminar was fully booked with 40 seats available in the Aula Magna. The following five dates had an average attendance of 24 participants per workshop both via Zoom and in person.
“The ASL seminars opened my eyes to how difficult it is to communicate with someone who does not know your language, as we have been told by students who experience this first-hand, and how much need there is for more people who know sign language,” said Irene Palermo, junior English Literature major.
Every seminar was recorded and uploaded on JCU’s SharePoint together with additional material related to the topics covered, available for anybody interested or unable to attend.
The story behind the unprecedented ASL seminars at JCU
Ribulotta got interested in ASL thanks to her sister who was studying to become an ASL interpreter at Gallaudet University. Ribulotta studied ASL in high school for two years while also practicing with a deaf friend in her field hockey team.
While working for JCU housing assistance in August, Ribulotta learned of a deaf student’s enrollment and offered to help. She met Barrett during Orientation week, and they agreed she would assist him with sign language around campus, which caught the attention of other students.
This student interest led Ribulotta to propose to Student Services the creation of seminars that would introduce the JCU community to the world of American Sign Language, to which JCU agreed.
Bocco said that during the summer, Student Services was informed about the registration of deaf degree-seeking student Barrett, and they considered the workshops a timely and inclusive initiative.
Seneb’s involvement with the seminars, instead, began when she learned, as a Resident Assistant (RA), that she had student Barrett coincidentally assigned to her group. She first learned ASL during middle school by participating in a deaf club. She also took ASL in high school for four years but had stopped using it until meeting Barrett.
“After that day, I decided I really needed to brush up on it,” said Seneb. “After practicing again and doing the workshops, it’s really coming back.”
Ribulotta said she wanted to share with the JCU community the basics of American Sign Language, so she selected relevant topics and shared her ideas with Seneb. They practiced the signs they would teach and ran them through for accuracy with Ribulotta’s sister Virginia and with Barrett for a final check.
More inclusivity at JCU
Globally, 1.5 billion people of all ages have some sort of hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization.
ASL seminars are a fundamental starting point to provide an “olive branch” to allow communication between a deaf and a hearing person, Ribulotta said.
“It’s also the best way to develop sensitivity of the Deaf culture and awareness of the community of non-hearing individuals,” said sophomore International Affairs major Elena Orazi, who attended the seminars.
Being part of a Deaf community is what really makes a difference during the interaction with a deaf person, said Virginia Ribulotta.
“While learning ASL is important, even more so is getting familiar with Deaf culture,” she said, an idea also shared by Ribulotta and Seneb during the seminars.
Ribulotta said she is preparing Seneb to continue leading the seminars since she graduates this Fall. Seneb will most likely continue the workshops together with other interested students.
“You can really see the steps that JCU has been taking to increase inclusivity and broaden students’ horizons,” said Gioia Kunst, sophomore Psychology major and seminar participant.
The university is trying to implement other initiatives in the ASL field, according to Student Services. The employment page of the university shows that JCU is looking to hire at least two certified ASL interpreters.
Professor Pamela Harris, JCU’s Learning Disabilities Coordinator and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, said that finding an ASL interpreter who can work in Italy can be difficult, because the visa and work permit process is out of JCU’s control.
According to Professor Harris, while still looking for ASL interpreters JCU hired an Italian Sign Language (LIS) interpreter to help Barrett who, meanwhile, has started learning LIS on his own.
The choice of hiring interpreters is geared towards increasing inclusivity at JCU, said Student Services.
American universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and Brown, offer different accommodations for deaf or hard of hearing students.
As stated in the Article 12 of Law 104 of the Italian Constitution, everyone in Italy has a right to education, and institutes are expected to make specific accommodations to allow students with disabilities to receive such learning.
Sign Linguistics Professor at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Lara Mantovan, said that accessibility services for deaf students, whether interpreting or real-time captioning, should always be provided within a university, both in class and during extra-curricular events, to ensure participation in university life.
Sign Language can be challenging to learn because it relies on visual-manual modality, according to Professor Mantovan. This means being able to motor coordinate, use facial expressions with grammatical functions, and understand signing space.
“We must not forget that any language is linked to a culture and a community,” said Professor Mantovan. She encourages students to join a deaf club or to go to a deaf café to get more involved with the Deaf community.
Barrett says that no matter how difficult American Sign Language might seem, the key is to keep practicing, especially in front of a mirror to make sure all signs are done correctly.
“If you do decide to learn Sign Language, you will impact so many lives…,” said Virginia Ribulotta. “Remember this, deaf people can’t learn how to hear, but hearing people can learn how to sign.”
To learn more about the ASL seminars at JCU, contact Student Activities Coordinator Federica Bocco at firstname.lastname@example.org and Moya Seneb at email@example.com.
Further reading and related content
Why we need to make education more accessible to the deaf, Ted Talk by Nyle DiMarco
Tips for effective communication, by Deaf-Hearing Communication Center
American Sign Language dictionary
One Sense – restaurant in Rome for the Deaf community