GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — For Rowan O’Dougherty, American Sign Language is his passion. And, what he’s more passionate about is helping others fall in love with the language he’s been speaking his entire life.
“Really, ASL is my heart. There’s a lot of things that I can explain in ASL that I’m not able to explain in English,” O’Dougherty signed during an interview with FOX 17. “As far as teaching, for me it’s very valuable because it allows more people to acquire ASL and then in turn be able to communicate with myself and with my community. “
O’Dougherty signed his responses to his friend and colleague Connie Petersen, who interpreted it for Fox 17. O’Dougherty is a professor at Grand Rapids Community College where he teaches ASL and a course on deaf culture and history class.
“It’s an amazing deaf community,” O’Dougherty signed. “Really the people are normally very open, very welcoming. Anyone that wants to learn sign language, it doesn’t matter if they’re an expert or if they’re novice, if they’re just beginning, they are all welcome.”
More people have become interested. Since the pandemic began over a year ago, there’s been a rise in interest to learn ASL, stemming from the increased visibility of ASL interpreters during daily press conferences.
“Now it’s becoming more popular because I think people again are seeing it more in the news. They’re seeing it as another community,” said GRCC ASL Prof. Rachel Whitmore. “So, a lot of people are getting a lot more interested in it because it’s getting a lot more exposure.”
Whitmore also teaches sign language to high school students at Forest Hills Public Schools. She said her students love it, and seeing it daily on the TV helps.
“The interpreters are doing a fantastic job. They’re really making it super accessible for the deaf community. Then the sign language students who are learning to become interpreters are getting great exposure to what it looks like to do important work like that,” Whitmore said. “The high school students are going, ‘Oh, my gosh; I know this. I learned the sign for mask the other day, Mrs. Whitmore.’”
Since there’s been increased visibility for ASL interpreters, there’s also been a growing demand to hire them. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employment for interpreters is expected to grow by 20 percent by 2029.
“I think that is a good start, but I would like to see the companies take it one step further,” O’Doughtery signed. “What I would like them to see [and] do is hire deaf people, not at basic-level positions but more as management roles because as a deaf individual, we are natural problem solvers. Every day we have to navigate through a hearing world.”
They often have to figure out, sometimes on the fly, how to communicate with people who don’t know sign language. So, they’re quick thinkers. Ultimately, what O’Dougherty would like to see is more people learn his language.
He believes the more people who learn it, the more equitable society becomes.
“I would like to see every individual become an expert in American Sign Language,” O’Dougherty signed. “It doesn’t matter where you go, if you go to a grocery store, or if you go to the movie theater, or maybe some sort of musical performance, then we are able to interact with everyone.”