Students at the high school level taking a foreign language tend to go for the traditional spoken languages such as Spanish, French, Latin, German, or Russian, but some students are optioning into American Sign Language (ASL) instead. Some students choose to take the class, but for others, ASL is an essential part of their everyday lives.
Sara Hackney, an ASL teacher at Princeton High School (PHS), has been a teacher for a total of eight years. Hackney started teaching Special Education at North College Hill High School for 2 years, she taught science to deaf students at St. Rita’s for 5 years, and this is Hackney’s 1st year teaching ASL at PHS. Hackney became interested in sign language because her major in college was Special Education and she thought that sign language would be a good skill to have if a deaf child is in her class one day. Hackney went to Xavier University and ASL was a language option. Hackney met her deaf fiance, Jon Berscheit, through working at St. Rita’s while he was working as a behavior specialist. Hackney and Berscheit are getting married in June but are together 24/7 so they already feel married.
“Having a deaf husband has impacted my life in many ways,” said Hackney. “Since I have been with Jon I feel more sensitive to the deaf community’s needs and prejudices that they experience daily.”
Hackney feels like more of an advocate for deaf individuals when she sees prejudice happening or a need to educate the hearing world on how to better serve deaf people. Most of the negative encounters that happen on a daily basis with Berscheit and the outside hearing world are a result of people not knowing how to interact or communicate with a deaf person. Even if someone doesn’t know sign language, which most hearing people don’t, there are many ways to respect and communicate with a deaf individual.
Berscheit became deaf when he was 18 months old due to spinal meningitis which caused an extremely high fever. The only thing to reduce the fever was a very strong medicine. The medicine reduced the fever but took his hearing. More than 80% of deaf people were born hearing then become deaf later in life due to sickness or an accident. Berscheit, however, has never let his deafness limit him. He played football, baseball, and rugby in high school and football and baseball in college. Berscheit went to a hearing high school with no interpreter. He got into University of Kentucky and then transferred to Gallaudet University. He went to the Washington D.C. Police academy. Berscheit does everything a hearing person does except hear.
“It hasn’t been easy for him,” said Hackney. “He still faces challenges everyday but he accepts who he is and knows he has many other positive things in his life to focus on rather than not being able to hear.”
Hackney doesn’t think she would have the same relationship with Berscheit if he was hearing. Hackney thinks their relationship is stronger and better due to Berscheit’s deafness. When they communicate with each other they have each others undivided attention because you have to visually focus on the signing motions.
“You can’t be eating, looking at your phone, or looking at the environment around you when you communicate with a deaf person,” said Hackney.
This makes Hackney and Berscheit’s relationship better because they are more focused on each other than a hearing couple would be. However, it has also been challenging to be together in public settings at times. Hackney tries to interpret for Berscheit the best she can when they are around their hearing friends or hearing family members but it is hard when there is a big group of people. There are many conversations and many times Berscheit feels left out of jokes and sarcasm that is hard to interpret quickly in sign language, but every relationship has difficulties and they are aware of each others needs.
Hackney says it can be tiring at times to switch back and forth from ASL and English every day at home and work. Teaching sign language all day at a school and using it as a mode of communication at home are different. At Princeton, Hackney mostly voices in her classroom but she is hoping to evolve the ASL II program to a more immersive classroom experience with voices off. At home, Hackney voices and signs interchangeably because her daughters are hearing. Hackney will sign to hearing people and voice to deaf people sometimes on accident.
“I have done it for so long now that I don’t really have to think about signing, it just comes naturally,” said Hackney.
Both of Hackney’s daughters went to St. Rita school for the Deaf program, so they experienced teachers signing and voicing all day. Kids pick up languages easier than teens and adults so it is easy for them since they experience signing daily. Both of Hackney’s daughters have been more aware of differences and special needs of others. They are more empathetic because they see Berscheit’s struggles and learn how to teach others about deaf culture.
“Sign language is not just a language,” said Hackney. “It is a culture and a way of life for me and my family.”
It isn’t just “moving your hands” or “something different to learn,” it is more than that. Without sign language Hackney wouldn’t have met the love of her life and she wouldn’t have felt the joy of helping deaf children and adults.