American Sign Language Students Express Deaf Culture Through Art


Libby Jansen

Sophomore Ava Pfeil does a finger painting of a bird across her hands while signing the word bird in ASL. Students were required to sign an object, then paint it over their hands. “I think it helped open my eyes and realize how hard it is for [deaf people] to communicate with others,” Pfeil said.

American Sign Language (ASL) teacher Tiffani Symons uses art to teach her students deaf culture in her ASL class.

“Deaf art or de’via [a deaf person who paints about the deaf experience, deaf culture, or good and bad experiences that they had growing up as a deaf individual] is very important in deaf culture,” Symons said. “This was definitely part of my plan all along, to do an art unit for ASL to talk about differences between a deaf artist and de’via [artists].”

Not only did students look at deaf art and de’via, but they also looked at deaf musicians, dancers and actors to learn about their mode of art.

“We also looked at different kinds of art, not just paintings or de’via art,” Symons said. “We looked at Sean Forbes, a deaf hip-hop artist, Nancy Rourke, a visual artist and Bernard Bragg, an actor who is [the] co-founder of [the] National Theater of Deaf.

Having the unique experience of learning about deaf culture through art helped sophomore Ava Pfeil have a different perspective on the language.

“I think the lesson behind it was that within the deaf culture, there [are] many things that people of the hearing culture don’t see,” Pfeil said. “So, through the art, they’re able to communicate to the rest of the world their viewpoint on everything.”

Not only did Pfeil benefit from the art project, but hard of hearing freshman Karen Trevor-Roberts learned to become permissive to classmates learning the language.

“At the beginning of the year when I was learning ASL as a class, I didn’t exactly want people to know my language, but later on when we did this project I became more tolerant for [my classmates] to learn the language,” Trevor-Roberts said.

Courtesy of Maryam Oyebamiji
Junior Maryam Oyebamiji poses with her artwork after its completion. “I got to meet a famous deaf artist and that’s not something a lot of ASL students get to do,” Oyebamiji said. “Just being immersed in the deaf culture was really eye-opening and it was a really great experience for me.”

Though the program had initially been meant for deaf high school students, Parkway West ASL students were given the opportunity to paint with the famous deaf artist.

“It was originally indicated that it would just be deaf and hard of hearing high school students, but ASL students from Parkway West got a special invitation to attend that class,” Symons said. “We had eight students from ASL I and ASL II go and paint with Nancy Rourke.”

With the unique experience of painting with a famous deaf artist, junior Maryam Oyebamiji emphasized her learning experience of the injustice towards the deaf while painting with Nancy Rourke.

“I learned that deaf culture is stemmed from the amount of oppression and the pride that they have for their culture,” Oyebamiji said. “Obviously being deaf seems like a disability in the hearing world, but it’s really not. Through their art, they show how proud they are and all the struggles they’ve been through.”