Columbus has the highest population of deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Ohio, an Ohio State lecturer said, and a university program is taking students off campus and into the community to use their skills to support the deaf community.

The American Sign Language program at Ohio State allows students to leave the classroom and apply their learning to real-life situations through a 2019 Emerging Service-Learning Award-winning Ohio State course.

According to the Office of Outreach and Engagement’s website, the university service-learning course won the award in May, as they work at partner sites, where students “respect Deaf Space at their partner site while using ASL and serving as communication facilitators between hearing service providers who do not sign and the marginalized Deaf people.”

The service-learning program, offered each semester to students who have taken at least one ASL course, is designed to bring student awareness to the deaf community in central Ohio. It allows ASL students to use the skills they learn in the classroom to provide needed services and support in the deaf community, Kristin Wickham-Saxon, senior lecturer in the ASL program, said.

“We identify the needs of our community partners as well as the skills and interests of our students to organize the site placements,” Wickham-Saxon said.

Students are placed in different agencies and organizations that serve the deaf community in central Ohio. The placements include group homes, nursing and/or rehabilitation facilities, independent living housing and anti-violence agencies, Wickham-Saxon said.

The service-learning course began at Ohio State three years ago, and since it started, it has taken off and created excitement in ASL students, Wickham-Saxon said.

“It is a transformative experience. Not one student leaves the class that has not been changed in a significant way,” Wickham-Saxon said.

In the program, most students only sign in the classroom when they are told to by professors, but Madison Zimmerly, a fourth-year in zoology, said it is important for students to sign conversationally with people in the deaf community.

“We have to completely sign to communicate when we go out in the community, so we are fully immersed, which is good for our language development,” Zimmerly said.

ASL students not only learn the language but also learn about the culture of the deaf community. In the service-learning course, they get to have first-hand experiences with the culture they have learned about, Zimmerly said.

“We do work that has a direct impact on someone’s life,” Zimmerly said.

As the service-learning course continues to be taught at Ohio State, the goal is to grow the opportunities the students have in the community and to help the deaf population of central Ohio as much as possible, Wickham-Saxon said.