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American Sign Language class offering students 'unique experience'

Published: Sunday, November 13, 2011

Updated: Monday, November 14, 2011 14:11

ASL class

Brittany Reese/Herald

Instructor Jerry Belew has taught American Sign Language for more than 10 years. His students say the experience is challenging but rewarding.

ASU has offered many different classes over the years, but Jerry Belew's American Sign Language classes, Introduction to Manual Communication and Advanced Manual Communication have a unique element that sets them apart from others.  

Belew, who has taught this course for over ten years, is deaf.

Tricia Mullen, a senior journalism major of Des Arc, said there are some challenges when learning from an instructor that is difficult to communicate with, but there are benefits as well.

"The most unique thing about this class is the learning barrier because the instructor is deaf. This forces you to really listen closely and learn it," she said.

"He's so patient, and takes the time to be clear to everyone," Mullen said. "This class is the most unique experience I've had in my four years here at ASU."

When asked how his disability influences his teaching style, Mullen said the following.

"It's like a combination of theatre and writing, he's acting it all out.  You learn that facial expressions are the things to make stories come alive. He also has videos that teach signs with words."

Mullen said students interested in the class should be warned that it won't be easy.

"You have to think of it like a real language. Sign language is just like learning Spanish or French–it takes time, practice and dedication. It's hard to learn a new language, and it's hard to learn sign. It's even harder to learn when you can't communicate openly with the instructor," she said. "He's deaf so you can't just raise your hand and ask, ‘what does this sign mean? Or how do I say this in ASL?' But because he's deaf his signs are natural and I am able to learn how to actually sign correctly."

Mullen said she had several reasons for taking the class.

"I took this course because I feel, as a Christian and a human being; we should equip ourselves with skills that allow us to communicate with anyone in the world.  It's also an opportunity to learn something cultural…it's not like anything you've ever experienced," she said. "I think the class is great. It's fun, educational and unique. I recommend everyone take this course because it provides essential skills to interact with the deaf culture in our world, and that is important. He is a great instructor and will make it so fun to learn a new language."

Gail Rasberry, secretary for communication disorders, spoke about working with Belew and how he overcomes the difficulties for his students.

"No obstacles with the course have come up primarily because Jerry will find a way to communicate with you and he'll do whatever it takes," Rasberry said. "He never gets upset, he never seems to get frustrated by communication difficulties that he has with people because of his lack of hearing, so he puts other people at ease who are trying to communicate with him, and will teach you how to better communicate with him. He provides students with a perspective that they're not used to seeing, so I think that's one reason he gets such high marks on his instructor evaluations."

Rasberry explained how Belew was hired as an instructor here at A-State.

"He received his Bachelors degree from Gallaudet University for the hearing impaired, and his wife was a student around the same time our current department chair was a student.  This department was in with the college of education, and she suggested a sign language class, because as a special education major, she was aware of the need for special education teachers to have some knowledge of sign language, so he was hired as a part-time instructor."

Rasberry even mentioned that Belew's wife will also occasionally aid him in teaching his students.

"At least once every semester, she'll come in to speak with the class and talk to them about deaf culture and how, as a hearing person, she's had to deal with the deaf community, so she can offer some insight on communicating with deaf people," Rasberry said.

Though students majoring in communication disorders are required to take the introductory course, both are offered in the spring and fall to anyone as an elective for two credit hours.

Rasberry said she hopes Belew's sign language courses could eventually qualify as second languages.

"At this time I don't think it qualifies as a second language, but Jerry has talked about increasing the number of courses he teaches and maybe sometime they'll consider it as a second language, but it's only been mentioned in passing and might be something we could look at in the future," she said.

Rasberry said this class has a lot to offer a student.

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