Signs of Progress for Deaf Studies

Illustration by Brian Raszka.

For Dr. Sheryl Cooper C’79, mastering the manual alphabet as a child seemed as natural as learning her ABCs. “I grew up around deaf people,” says the Towson University assistant professor who today coordinates one of about only 15 undergraduate deaf studies programs in the country.

The family business—a Baltimore-area dental lab that made dentures—employed and trained a large number of deaf workers. So from the company crab feasts to the winter holiday parties, Cooper was surrounded by people using sign language. Her father, who was not hearing impaired, learned the manual alphabet to communicate better with his employees, then taught her to finger spell. Later, while she was in high school, he took a course in sign language.

Cooper recalls his graduation ceremony: “They had all these people on stage signing songs. I could not take my eyes off of it, it was so pretty. I always loved languages, and I thought, wow, this is just like another language. I want to do this.”

While earning her communications degree, she completed a sign language program at the Community College of Philadelphia. She worked as an interpreter for the principal of a school for the deaf for a couple of years before enrolling in a master’s degree program at New York University. Later, as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the state of Maryland, she set records for the number of deaf or hearing-impaired clients she placed in jobs.

After working for several years at Gallaudet University, she joined the faculty of Maryland’s Towson University. “I got there and found out that students were so hungry for sign language. With no program on the books, she helped about 40 interested students create their own interdisciplinary studies majors.

After completing her doctorate, she convinced the university to create an official program last September. “The initial budget was based on the prayer that we would have 15 students apply and get into the program. By the end of May, we did not have 15, we had 80. The program is drawing students from all over the country.”

Though more than 70 million people around the world are deaf or hard of hearing, Towson’s is one of a small number of undergraduate programs of its kind in the country. “The field is so new, and not all universities are willing to recognize it as an academic discipline.” But more schools are beginning to accept American Sign Language as a foreign language, Cooper says.

While she continues to develop the deaf-studies program, Cooper conducts a side business as a sign-language interpreter. She has interpreted for U.S. Presidents and governors. “I also get to do cool and wonderful things like be present at the births of people’s babies, when the mom is deaf or the dad is deaf. I interpreted at three babies’ births before I had my own children, and that was so helpful because I knew what to expect.”

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