How one Kent State student’s query changed her conversations

Bethany Stahler, senior American Sign Language major, student teaches at Cleveland Heights High School. She teaches three levels of ASL classes throughout the day. Photo by Leighann McGivern.

Bethany Stahler, senior American Sign Language major, student teaches at Cleveland Heights High School. She teaches three levels of ASL classes throughout the day. Photo by Leighann McGivern.

Kelly Tunney

Bethany Stahler perches on a metal stool at the front of a classroom, waving her hands wildly. She contorts her face in various expressions, narrowing her eyes, then opens them wide. Her long blonde hair is pulled back into a ponytail so her face is clearly visible as she purses her lips together, then opens them to mouth words without making a sound.

She’s signing to a group of 15 American Sign Language 3 students at Cleveland Heights High School, where she is student teaching for the semester.

Stahler, a New Jersey native, found herself in this position after an unexpected series of events led her to a part-time summer job at a candy store. When Stahler was 16 years old and had just completed her sophomore year in high school, she had a job as a nanny lined up. However, it fell through, which left her jobless in the middle of the summer when college students had already filled vacant positions around town.

One day she was driving with her father when they saw a “Help Wanted” sign hanging on the door of a candy shop. Her father, a pastor, called the store later that day to ask for an application, and the employee, thinking he wanted the job himself, cussed him out and rejected him. When he explained it was for his daughter, she frantically apologized and brought Stahler into the already-crowded store for a position.

“Had I walked in and just been like, ‘Can I have an application?’ they would have just thrown it out,” Stahler said. “So because she cussed at my dad and felt horrible about it, I got the job.”

On her first day at the candy shop while talking to the other employees, who were also her age, Stahler noticed three of the girls hidden away at the back of the store. Rather than talking with each other, they were using sign language. A coworker informed her the girls were sisters and were deaf. They were placed at the back because they couldn’t do any of the other work or talk to customers. The other employees weren’t supposed to communicate with them.

Upon hearing this command to stay away from the girls, Stahler immediately rushed to them to introduce herself. She knew very limited sign language, but was able to sign, “My name is Bethany.” The girls, excited, signed back, but Stahler’s knowledge was depleted. She passed them a note, scribbling, “Can you teach me sign language?”

From that day, the three girls slowly taught Stahler words in sign language. They pointed to an object, such as a chair or table, and moved their arms to communicate the words. After spending time with the girls, Stahler was able to learn enough sign language to translate what the deaf girls were saying to the rest of the girls working at the shop. Everyone could finally communicate.

“I didn’t know culture, I didn’t know history, I didn’t know grammar, but I knew signs and kind of made the two worlds come together and became the unofficial interpreter,” Stahler said.

After three summers learning sign language from the girls at the shop, Stahler is now a senior American Sign Language major at Kent State.

“We definitely are a different type of major. We’re not that big, so you have your classes with the same people,” she said. “Our classes are like six, seven, eight people, and when you see them for however many hours every single week, you get really close.”

In her home state of New Jersey, Stahler wasn’t exposed to ASL other than learning it from her friends at the candy shop.

“We actually tried to get it at my high school,” she said. “But with budget cuts and everything, why would they want to add a foreign language?”

Therefore, Stahler looked to Kent State, a school roughly eight hours away from home, because it had the ASL curriculum she was interested in. It is this commitment that has carried Stahler through her time at Kent State.

Last spring, the Modern and Classical Languages Department threatened to restrict enrollment for Kent State’s ASL courses to only ASL majors. This caused the ASL students to band together in protest. Stahler and several friends organized a “Silent Standoff” rally to show the administration how important the major is to them.

The group, armed with signs reading, “Make your cuts somewhere else” and “Can you hear us now?” the group stood in the middle of the windy Risman Plaza, talking to various media outlets to spread the word about the administration’s plans. Several days after the protest, Stahler and another member of the group met with the chair of MCLS and worked out an agreement that non-ASL students could register for classes once ASL students were registered.

Stahler’s passion for ASL is evident, especially as she talks of spreading knowledge about the deaf community so people aren’t so uncomfortable around those who are deaf.

“There is so much ignorance because people aren’t exposed to deaf culture and to sign language, so they immediately just brush it off,” she said. “My biggest goal for doing this is I wanted to bridge that gap between the deaf and the hearing world.”

Bridging that gap serves as the motivation for many ASL students both in high school and college to learn the language and immerse themselves in the deaf culture.

Kayla Poirier and Korinne Courtwright sit at the back of the American Sign Language 3 class, half signing to each other, half whispering. The class is having a discussion in sign language about what they do and don’t like about their houses. A boy struggles to sign what he wants to say, and messes up. Several students laugh. It’s not laughter meant to embarrass him, it shows understanding of his struggle to communicate.

Although Poirier and Courtwright are whispering together, they are still engaged in the class discussion. After several years of experience in sign language classes, they are passionate about the language and how it allows the deaf community to feel included. However, they are aware of the negative view of the deaf as a whole.

“People are very uncomfortable around each other when they can’t communicate,” Courtwright said.

They explain the deaf don’t feel handicapped by their loss of hearing but are frustrated when other people refuse to communicate with them because of it.

“Wouldn’t you be angry if you can see and you can understand what people are saying and they’re talking about you or they’re asking other people what you want,” Poirier said. “It’s like ‘I can tell you myself. I am a person, I am intelligent.’”

David Stewart, teacher of the American Sign Language class Stahler is student teaching for, jokes along with his students, which creates a relaxed atmosphere. This allows students to get out of their comfort zones in order to learn sign. He noticed when Stahler started teaching the class how comfortable she was talking to them and forming a connection, which is important in the deaf community.

“She’s really good with the kids,” he said. “That’s one of the things that really surprised me about her; she just came in and immediately connected with them.”

Stewart, along with others, are seeing the deaf talked about more, whether on TV or advertisements. People are finally beginning to look past their differences and communication barriers.

“All of a sudden, they don’t see the handicap, which is a word I hate to use because deaf people never feel like they’re handicapped,” Stewart said. “They see people, they see the human as opposed to the hearing-less, which has made a big difference.”

Stahler emphasized the importance of being able to communicate with the deaf community in everyday life. Whether someone is a doctor or nurse or a fire fighter, everyone should be able to communicate with the deaf to some extent.

“It’s so much about communicating, and finding out about who that person is and building a conversation,” she said.

Both the students and teachers at Cleveland Heights accept Stahler, and are comfortable working with her. She feels the same, but eventually wants to take her future in ASL further, to establish ASL in more universities.

“Once I get my Ph.D. I want to set up an ASL program at the collegiate level, because not many universities offer a degree program in ASL,” she said. “That’s my ultimate, really long-term goal.”

Stahler looks back on her past and her journey that led her from New Jersey to Ohio, where she knew no one, all because of a job she got at a candy store one summer, and she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I never should have gotten that job, I had a job already,” she said. “Then I met those girls, and the rest is history.”

Contact Kelly Tunney at [email protected].