Hannah Michelle Bussa
UNO is the only university in the state of Nebraska that offers a bachelor’s degree for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting.
Jonathan Scherling is one of the professors in the program, and one of the only Deaf professors at UNO.
“Being one of a few Deaf instructors at UNO is somewhat of a challenge, because many people don’t know sign language,” he said. “Some of them are not aware with Deaf culture, so it is my responsibility to educate them. However, I think accessibility is a lot better today than in the past.”
He said his secretary knows some signs and UNO provides captions on videos, which helps campus be more accessible.
Scherling grew up in a Deaf family, with a Deaf grandmother, parents, siblings and other Deaf relatives. He graduated from Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs before earning his Bachelor’s in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies from Gallaudet University.
In 2020, he earned his Master’s in Public Administration from UNO.
Scherling decided to teach at UNO because one of his colleagues used to be his high school teacher.
“She later started teaching Deaf/Hard of Hearing Education courses at UNO and right before I graduated from Gallaudet, she encouraged me to apply at UNO,” he said.
He said moving back to Nebraska was one of the most important decisions of his life.
“I have been teaching ASL and Deaf culture here for the past thirteen years,” he said. “I am truly blessed to work for a university that allows me to get involved in my community.”
Scherling serves on the Board for the Nebraska Association for the Deaf and the Iowa School for the Deaf Foundation. He is also the director of Signing Nebraska, a video project to preserve Nebraska’s regional signs. He’s a member of the National Association of the Deaf, Lincoln Association of the Deaf and Omaha Association of the Deaf.
He has also served as a representative on the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Full Board.
UNO students learning from Scherling are learning from a professor working tirelessly for his community.
Dae Johnson was the first African American to graduate from the American Sign Language Interpretation program at UNO. She graduated in May and is now working as an Educational ASL Interpreter.
“Interpreters who are Black are completely underrepresented in this field,” she said.
According to a national registry, only about 5% of Interpreters are Black.
“Which means that this field is lacking the representation for young children who are Black and Deaf to say they have an interpreter who looks like them,” Johnson said. “When interpreters share the same cultural identity with their clients, it allows them to be able to pick up on those cultural nuances and so much more that someone with a different background would miss, which leaves these individuals at a disadvantage, always.”
Johnson said the lack of African Americans pursuing this career path doesn’t surprise her.
“The amount of isolation and marginalization one experiences within the program and in the field is enough to make someone like me feel as if they are not welcome in this line of work,” she said. “Especially when there are no steps being taken to diversify the field.”
However, she said it is significant to have interpreters who are Black for Black Deaf and hard of hearing individuals.
“It is for them,” she said.
Johnson did not learn any Black American Sign Language (BASL) at UNO.
“It is not in UNO’s curriculum to teach students about it,” she said. “It definitely should be. Preserving BASL is vital to keeping the language alive for African Americans and should be valued the same as ‘traditional’ ASL.”
Johnson decided to study ASL interpretation because it became a passion of hers over time.
“Having a Deaf friend in my youth solidified my decision to immerse myself within this field and really get to know more about this culture,” Johnson said.
She said now that she is working as an interpreter, she is enjoying it and looking forward to many great years to come.
Jackson Munchrath took ASL I as an elective and found his place in the interpreting program. He is now a fifth-year sign language interpreting major at UNO.
“I love this program so much,” he said. “Our program is so small, and I think that is because no one really knows that we exist.”
The American Sign Language and Deaf Education programs at UNO are listed under the academic unit of Special Education and Communication Disorders. Munchrath said this should change.
“There is nothing to justify the term ‘special education,’” he said. “We are learning a different language. We are learning about a new culture…Everyone deserves to have access to information because it is a basic human right.”
Munchrath said the basic human right of access to information is why he believes interpreting is important.
Students in the interpreting program are required to have Deaf interaction, like sign-and-dine events on and off campus or Deaf events within the community.
“It is required, but the requirement isn’t the reason that I go to Deaf events,” he said. “I go to Deaf events to be immersed in the culture and to help my sign language skills so I can be the best advocate, interpreter, and ally that I can be.”
Munchrath said while interpreting students take a class called History, Psychology, and Sociology of Deafness, there aren’t many Deaf culture classes.
“The amazing thing about this program though is that in every class that I have taken in the program Deaf culture has influenced the class,” he said. “Without Deaf culture, we wouldn’t have the classes. ASL depends so much on Deaf culture, so we learn about it in every class.”
Hannah Swanda is a third-year UNO student studying in the Deaf education program (formally labeled elementary education with an endorsement in Deaf/Hard of Hearing education).
Swanda chose UNO because she knew she wanted to be a teacher. She said UNO has a great education program and she was interested in taking ASL classes.
“Once I fell in love with the language and made more connections in the Deaf community, I switched my major to Deaf education because I realized I was much more interested in and passionate about the field of Deaf education,” she said.
Swanda started attending Deaf events as part of her ASL classes. She said the History, Psychology, and Sociology of Deafness course teaches the history of ASL as a language as well as the culture and community behind it.
“My biggest takeaway is that I will always be learning from Deaf people about their language, history, and culture,” she said. “It is important to be educated and always willing to listen to Deaf people, especially as someone who wants to work in a field with them!”
Swanda said the Deaf education program includes experience with audiologists, Speech-Language Pathologists and ASL interpreters, as a basic understanding of these positions is important as a Deaf educator.
“You also learn Sign Language from Deaf, native signers who want nothing more than to see you learn and develop your skills,” she said.
She said the background knowledge required in the Deaf education program prepares students for all that Deaf education entails.
“All of this helps you be a better educator, to make more informed decisions, and know how to be the best advocate for your students that you can be,” she said.
September is Deaf Awareness Month.
“I personally think Deaf Awareness Month is great for creating awareness of the culture and the language in the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community,” Scherling said. “As a linguistic minority, we do not believe the audiological hearing needs to be fixed or restored. We focus on the culture and the language.”
The Deaf community also celebrates Deaf History Month every year from March 13 to April 15 to recognize the accomplishments of community members. During Deaf Awareness Month, the focus is more on educating others about the community.
Scherling said people should know that ASL is its own language with unique grammatical features not used in English.
Munchrath said Deaf Awareness Month isn’t as well-known as it should be.
“I think that people should do a little research about the Deaf community,” he said.
Swanda said people should educate themselves and listen to Deaf people.
“When it comes to their language, culture, and the importance of representation and accessibility- Deaf people will know way more about it than I ever will,” she said. “Take what you learn during Deaf Awareness Month and use it the rest of the year.”
She said she encourages those who are interested in learning ASL and getting involved with the Deaf community to do so.
“The best thing anyone can do to be aware, is to gain knowledge,” Johnson said. “It is important to know when referring to individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, using the term ‘hearing impaired’ is not acceptable. It implies people who identify as Deaf or Hard of Hearing are broken and need to be fixed, which is not true.”
Johnson also gave advice on how to interact with Deaf individuals.
“It is important to know that roughly 30% of lipreading is successful,” she said. “So, face them when you are speaking, and use other resources to communicate, like writing on a notepad or in a phone. Most importantly, treat them like you would anyone else.”
Scherling emphasized that most Deaf people prefer to be called “Deaf,” not “hearing impaired,” which focuses on what is lacking or lost. “Deaf” instead focuses on the benefits to being Deaf.
“Most of us view ourselves as a unique cultural and linguistic minority who use ASL as our primary language,” he said.
He said Deafness is also not a cause of reading delays or delayed development—language deprivation is.
“There are many deaf children that are affected by language deprivation because they did not have early exposure to ASL and English,” he said.
Access to ASL and English is important, which is why Deaf education and ASL interpreting programs are necessary.
Scherling encouraged people to read and watch videos about the Deaf community and Deaf culture, like “Through Deaf Eyes.”
“You can also take ASL classes at UNO!” he said.
Scherling also encouraged people to check out a museum in Omaha, the Nebraska Deaf Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.