Shepherd and The Importance of ASL

By: Natalie Eaton

The purpose of learning a language is to properly communicate with people around you. But, what happens when you can’t depend on your voice? At Jenks, learning sign language has helped students better connect with the deaf community and the world around them. 

Erin Shepherd is a third year ASL teacher here at the high school. She not only teaches ASL, but monitors and helps several students at Jenks who are deaf or hard of hearing with anything they need in the classroom. 

Shepherd, with mild hearing loss, can relate to her hard of hearing students all too well. She was born with mild hearing loss, and it is progressive. Shepherd lost all hearing when she was nineteen, and began to use hearing aids. Eventually, she became fluent in ASL, and is now educating students on how to communicate with the deaf community in the real world. 

“I like to teach the ‘why’ to what we’re learning,” said Shepherd. “’Why are you learning this vocabulary? Why is this important?’ I want them to feel confident, and that they can communicate with anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing. And that they can do it with inclusivity and equality and equity in mind.”

One of Shepherd’s students, Sutton Grigsby (11), believes a huge benefit about being in ASL is learning how to correctly communicate with the deaf community. While it sounds challenging and rigorous to learn a new language, having Shepherds makes it fun and engaging. 

“She makes it easy to learn, but let’s us push ourselves to continue to grow,” said Grigsby. “Instead of telling us what a sign is, she does not use her voice and lets us figure it out to help us remember it better.”

Jenks ASL Club Logo (Left) and Erin Shepherd in her classroom (Right)

Outside of the classroom, Shepherd hopes her students will know how to communicate with the deaf community with confidence. One of the many opportunities given to Jenks students is participating in a silent dinner, usually held at the Woodland Hills Mall or at Barnes and Noble. There, they get real-life experience chatting with the deaf community, and testing out their new skills as practice. 

“My favorite thing to teach in ASL is basically concept, deaf culture, deaf norms, and how to best communicate, ” said Shepherd. “In our deaf culture lessons, we talk about hearing aids, cochlear implants, and different levels of hearing loss from very very mild loss to severe profound loss.”

Shepherd, who went to The University of Tulsa, took many different ASL classes and has had many different professors to perfect her ASL. But she expresses that the best teacher is getting out in the community and talking with deaf people.

The more practice the better. Shepherd also has five kids who are all learning how to do ASL. Her husband also uses ASL at home to communicate with her. 

While having a mild hearing loss, Shepherd does not believe it has changed her way of living or looking at the world around her. Instead, she believes the important thing is realizing the culture and language of ASL, rather than looking at it from a loss perspective. 

“I don’t know anything different,” said Shepherd. “People who are born completely deaf and use ASL, that is their culture and language. What we call that is a deaf gain, we try not to say ‘loss.’ ‘Oh…you lost this thing…’No, they gained ASL. They gained the deaf community. They gained deaf culture. All these things that they wouldn’t have known before.”

While it sounds difficult to go to a large public school like Jenks with hearing loss,  Shepherd is proud of how dedicated the staff is in making the deaf community feel included. 

“They do fantastically here,” said Shepherd. “We have several students that use interpreters. I absolutely love being at Jenks because teachers are so open into being inclusive and making sure that whatever the students need they will do in the classroom.”

Interested in being in ASL? Learn more about Jenks ASL Club here

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