Awareness, Acceptance, Inclusion: The Path to Deaf studies at UMass Amherst
An interdisciplinary studies academic advisor for University Without Walls (UWW), Sanders is no stranger to finding strength in times of adversity, nor is he hesitant to glean on his past hardships to create a better life for himself and those around him.
“My life's journey is about beating the odds and breaking the stereotypical mold,” he says. “I strive to fight for equality.”
Beating the odds is a common thread weaved throughout Sanders’s life — During his childhood, he lost a brother, lived in a shelter for a year, and began working at the age of fifteen to help provide for his family.
On top of this, Sanders made time to become fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), as his older sister is Deaf. Communicating with a Deaf sibling and witnessing the difficulties she faced profoundly impacted Sanders’s outlook and inspired him to pursue an education in Deaf studies.
“When I first began my college journey, I was not sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that Holyoke Community College offered a Deaf Studies program, so I enrolled in it,” he recalls. “After completing an internship at East Longmeadow High School through the Willie Ross School for the Deaf, I made the initial decision to become a guidance counselor for the Deaf and hard of hearing.”
Sanders’s professional journey made a few shifts — his path post undergrad began with Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), a national initiative that aims to increase the number of low-income students who obtain a secondary school diploma and are prepared to succeed in postsecondary education. The experiences Sanders had with GEAR UP provided him with tools that would later be useful in securing his position at UWW’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies.
“As a first-generation, African-American male, I value education and the opportunities it has afforded me — I wanted to somehow extend this passion to others,” Sanders notes. “With GEAR UP, I knew I was on the right track with encouraging others to pursue higher education in the best way they saw fit, whether it’s two-year, four-year or vocational training.”
Sanders says GEAR UP also prepared him for different recruiting strategies and operations, helping him land a job with University Without Walls as the pre-admissions advisor and recruitment coordinator in 2017. Though his original pursuit of providing guidance for and directly working with the Deaf community had paused, an opportunity to revisit this passion presented itself at UWW. After Sanders joined the academic advising team in 2019, connections were made that reignited his focus.
Deaf studies is one step in a long journey towards awareness, acceptance, and inclusion. It is great to know some historical and cultural information, but we must put this into practice where everyone has access and is not left out – even unintentionally.
“While working with UWW, I was referred to [Psychological and Brain Sciences Professor] Ashley Woodman, who was interested in offering a Deaf Studies course,” he explains. “When the opportunity to teach the course was presented, it was a full-circle moment — I had no idea I would be teaching the subject at the college level when my initial goal was only to guide others to college. Now, I am doing both.”
Contrary to what some may think, Sanders clarifies that Intro to Deaf Studies is not a class to learn ASL, but instead an opportunity to understand the history, language, culture, diversity, controversies, and contributions within the Deaf community.
“Students will gain the knowledge and essential skills for working with people who are Deaf and hard of hearing,” he says. “I encourage students to dive deeper into the content, relate it to their own experiences, and add their input to expand the discussions and learning opportunities.”
Sanders notes that the class is a chance for participants to recognize their own misconceptions of the Deaf community as well as adversity Deaf people commonly face.
“The first assignment in the course is a survey that evaluates a student’s current understanding of the Deaf community, culture, language, and history,” he explains. “This is a glimpse into what society has perpetuated in the media regarding people who are Deaf and hard of hearing — many students realize right away that what they thought they knew is not true or some variation of the truth.”
After completing his first semester teaching the course last fall, Sanders believes offering a Deaf studies class will continue to be a valuable resource for the campus community.
“Deaf studies is one step in a long journey towards awareness, acceptance, and inclusion. It is great to know some historical and cultural information, but we must put this into practice where everyone has access and is not left out – even unintentionally,” he asserts.
Beyond the classroom, Sanders encourages everyone to take an American Sign Language course, learn how to fingerspell the alphabet, engage with Deaf people, and research ways to be an ally to the Deaf community. “Of course, things won’t be perfect right away,” he remarks, “but the effort counts and the dedication matters.”
This article was published on February 8, 2022.
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