Unheard: Deaf Culture and ASL at Harvard

“No one will speak up, and you don’t want to be that one person who speaks up, because it’s something that a lot of people with hearing loss are self-conscious about.” Many professors, she added, do not record their lectures or provide transcripts.

Fong Auditorium in Boylston Hall is usually loud and full of activity on a weeknight. On this night, it was silent—but not devoid of conversation: Audience members and interpreters signed animatedly with each other in American Sign Language.

On Thursday, September 28, Harvard’s Deaf Awareness Club organized a panel to mark the close of Deaf Awareness Month. Four Deaf people from Harvard, Boston University, and the Boston Deaf Community answered questions about Deaf Lives—the name of the panel—as well as Deaf culture, and audism, which Bruce M. Bucci, a panelist and Deaf studies professor at Boston University, described as “the intentional ignoring and devaluing of Deaf culture.”


In 2015, the National Association of the Deaf sued Harvard for failing to provide closed captioning on its online materials.

Sarah D. Gluck, a graduate student at Harvard and a panelist at the September event, highlighted accessibility issues at Harvard. “There are opportunities that I miss because I’m Deaf and because it’s hard to find an interpreter at the last minute,” Gluck said. Gluck said she often had to give more than two weeks’ notice to hire interpreters.

University Disabilities Coordinator Michele A. Clopper wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard University Disabilities Services continues to experience a shortage of in-person and remote interpreters, and seeks solutions to this challenge.

Gluck, in response, suggested that Harvard hire a full time ASL interpreter and caption all information and presentations.

The Harvard Deaf Awareness Club doesn’t know of any Deaf students at Harvard College, but some students are hard-of-hearing.. “A lot of times professors get annoyed with their microphone and so they’ll take it off,” Kariss M. Alcorn ’18, a club member who is hard-of-hearing, said. “No one will speak up, and you don’t want to be that one person who speaks up, because it’s something that a lot of people with hearing loss are self-conscious about.” Many professors, she added, do not record their lectures or provide transcripts.

Taylor R. Joyce ’19, another hard-of-hearing student in the Harvard Deaf Awareness Club, said that Harvard sees accessibility as a “secondary cost.” According to her, deaf accessibility is not the norm in classrooms.

Clopper wrote that the UDS is “committed to providing supports that enable students to participate fully in all aspects of life at Harvard,” and that the quality of current translation services has been “praised by community members.”


For-credit ASL classes were first offered at Harvard last year. Before then, students interested in ASL and Deaf culture could only take weekend classes through the Deaf Awareness Club. Kathryn Davidson, the organizer of Harvard’s ASL classes and an Assistant Professor of Linguistics, explained the for-credit classes were added because “a lot of students wanted to go more in-depth and devote more time than you can in weekend classes.”

Harvard currently offers 4 levels of ASL, and enrollment is strong. Last year, 100 people came to the first day of ASL 1, and half that many applied for about 20 spots.

Like any other language class at Harvard, lessons about ASL grammar and vocabulary are paired with lessons about Deaf culture. “That has been a wonderful surprise for lots of the students—how much taking an ASL class is about learning about a whole new culture, not just a completely different grammar,” Davidson said.

Yasmin Yacoby ’19, a member of the Deaf Awareness Club, said ASL, like any spoken language, has its own set of grammar rules and rich culture. But although ASL can now be taken for credit, it still does not fulfill the College’s language requirement, nor is it eligible for a citation.

Davidson said that the language requirement was put into place 10 years ago, when ASL wasn’t even offered. Some students, like Lincoln J. Craven-Brightman ’20, a current ASL 3 student and Deaf Awareness Club University Initiatives Coordinator, worry that incoming freshmen deciding are discouraged from taking ASL because it does not fulfill the requirement.

“A lot of people have been contacting the office of undergraduate education about the language requirement,” Davidson said, “and so I hope that we won’t have to be asking this question for much longer.”

"ASL does not meet the current language requirement, and although there is interest in reviewing the requirement, students need to understand that the language requirement is set by the faculty and can only be changed by vote of the full faculty," Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Noël Bisson wrote in an emailed statement. "Changing a faculty rule always takes time, and this particular change will require much consultation and several steps."


Other universities vary in their ASL offerings and for-credit status. At the University of Pennsylvania, where ASL fulfills the language requirement, nine different ASL classes, as well as an ASL/Deaf Studies program, are offered. Yale, on the other hand, allows ASL to fulfill the language requirement only if students come in with prior knowledge of it.

Regardless of where other universities stand, the Deaf Awareness Club believes that Harvard should be a leader, not a follower, on this issue.

And ASL’s administrative status has a greater impact than its effect on course schedules. For some students, ASL is as much a social justice priority as it is an academic one.

Maya V. Chung ’19, the student director of the Deaf Awareness Club, recounted how several weeks ago, Magdiel Sanchez, a deaf Latino man in Oklahoma, was fatally shot by two police officers. “Especially in this political climate,” Chung insisted, “Harvard needs to support the language and culture of Deaf people because minorities are too often being silenced. I don’t think Harvard can wait any longer.”

Students in the club also hope to change representation of Deaf students in Harvard’s population through campus tours conducted in ASL for prospective Deaf students.

Still, current hard-of-hearing students struggle with accessibility. And until there are adequate resources, bringing in Deaf students will be a challenge. “That’s something we’re working and fighting towards,” Craven-Brightman said. “We want Deaf people to see Harvard as a possibility, an opportunity. As Harvard is.”