SPCS ASL classes support diversity, equity & inclusion

April 9, 2021
How Reba Poole teaches a visual language despite physical distancing

By Julia Straka, ’21

The School of Professional and Continuing Studies has been offering American Sign Language (ASL) classes to community members, undergraduates, and faculty/staff members for the past two years. The courses incorporate group games and teach the basics of sign language, like the alphabet, in a fun way. The course program manager and experienced instructor work together to foster an inclusive, diverse UR web of learners.

The ASL classes started out small, as a semester-long course held once a week for an hour and a half in the fall of 2017. Senior program manager Mary Catherine Raymond offered the class to community members for a small fee, to faculty and staff through tuition remission, and to undergraduates free of charge, and registration grew from both the UR and greater Richmond communities. As demand increased, a beginner level two class was offered the next semester. The class turned out to be a hit and has received over 100 registrations since it began.

When Raymond first started getting requests for ASL classes, she reached out to the other SPCS language and enrichment instructors for references. They recommended Reba Poole, who has taught ASL for over 30 years. She is a graduate of world-renowned Gallaudet University, a higher education institution that caters to the deaf and hearing impaired. While Poole, who is deaf, is fluent in ASL, she can also read lips, which facilitates communication with beginner students.

By making ASL classes accessible to the community and UR students and staff, SPCS creates a more informed, inclusive community and supports the general university’s mission. The president’s office has made a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion within all branches of the university, and SPCS prepares students to welcome students of all different identities, abilities, and experiences to the Spider community.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced instructors to teach from behind the computer screen, Zoom presented some challenges for Poole and her students, but the classes have found creative solutions to the communication needs. Poole uses the closed caption feature to understand her students when they speak.

Poole’s students see the silver lining to the new Zoom-format classes.

“While the pivot to remote and virtual learning has highlighted many communications challenges, the first online ASL class was engaging and discussion-based,” said Adrienne Piazza, who’s taken the ASL class with Poole and directs the Bonner Scholars Program. “I was forced to pay extra close attention, which allowed me to pick up details I may not have in an in-person environment.”

With creative solutions and practice with new technology, Poole and Raymond met several times to design the online version of the course.

Poole’s students are just as happy as Poole and Raymond that ASL classes are still held, even over Zoom. “I've always wanted to learn ASL, so I was very excited to be able to attend this session,” said LaToya Blizzard, a community registrant. “Reba was a great teacher, and very engaging. Looking forward to learning more from her!”

Poole’s partnership with SPCS connects students with the SPCS community while creating a more diverse, inclusive, and understanding university environment. What started out as a small class has turned into a strong team of ASL learners that even a global pandemic can’t stop.