WOU Continues to Lead Nation in American Sign Language Education and Advocacy

Two people in a class

Western Oregon University’s Division of Deaf Studies and Professional Studies (DDSPS) is nationally known to be consistently at the cutting edge of innovation and excellence in its academic programs.

Mark Girod ’94, dean of the College of Education, attributes the programs’ success to a dedicated faculty who are committed to access, equity and inclusion for all individuals and who deliver programs and courses rooted in these core values.

“The faculty are deeply caring. They push students to meet high standards and align their courses to meet national standards,” Girod said.

DDSPS offers a range of well-known graduate and undergraduate programs supported by a strong foundation of American Sign Language preparation. WOU offers three years of ASL programs; most colleges offer only two years. WOU trains professionals for jobs as vocational and mental health counselors, interpreters, teachers and more. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of interpreters and translators of all languages is projected to grow 19% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.

A woman using American Sign Language
Western Oregon University is nationally known for its Division of Deaf Studies and Professional Studies.

A 2019 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education states that WOU produces the second-most ASL degrees in the United States. William Woods University in Missouri was first, and the University of North Florida was third.

Girod said WOU’s programs are aligned to standards and professional expectations in their related fields and require that students demonstrate their expertise in the real world through work experiences.

“Western Oregon University employs more faculty and staff who are deaf than any other campus on the West Coast,” Girod said. “The experiences and expertise that this adds to our campus and community make WOU a very special place in which individuals can achieve their dreams.”

Amanda Smith, chair of the DDSPS and a nationally certified interpreter, said WOU’s faculty are the reason its programs have achieved national recognition.

“Our faculty are forward thinkers, engaged meaningfully in the work of our disciplines and actively involved in recruiting students,” Smith said. “Most of our faculty are involved with, if not founders of national conferences in their fields, work closely with professionals on boards and other active groups serving the profession. Our faculty present and publish frequently in national and international publications and seek out grant funding to recruit and support students here at WOU.”

A person using American Sign Language
Western Oregon University’s Division of Deaf Studies and Professional Studies prepares students for a variety of careers.

Part of the Division of Deaf Studies and Professional Studies, WOU’s Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling (RMHC) graduate program is divided into a generalist and a deaf track. Both tracks train students for careers in vocational and mental health counseling.

Previously offered only face-to-face, the RMHC program deaf specialty curriculum transitioned to an online/hybrid format in January. There are currently 10 full-time and part-time deaf track students in the first cohort from California, Arizona, Montana, Kentucky and Florida.

Students in the program’s online/hybrid format obtain support made possible through a grant received by WOU’s Research and Resource Center with Deaf* communities (RRCD). WOU’s RRCD was one of only 30 organizations nationally to receive the 5-year $1 million grant from the federal Rehabilitation Service Administration (RSA).

RRCD has been supporting students in fields such as interpreter training, deaf and hard of hearing education and rehabilitation counseling for more than 50 years. The RRCD will receive $200,000 annually for the RSA grant, which supports RMHC students, who are committed to a career as a state vocational rehabilitation counselor. The grant helps deaf track students with their tuition, training and professional development, including spending two weeks to attend classes at WOU this summer.

Dr. Denise Thew Hackett, an associate professor of Deaf Studies and Professional Studies, is the RMHC program coordinator and principal investigator for the grant.

“Our program has a long history of receiving this grant, and that is due to our nationally and federally well-knownreputation,” Thew Hackett said.

Thew Hackett said one of the unique qualities of WOU’s deaf track within the RMHC program is students are required to be proficient in ASL before being admitted into the deaf track that uses the bilingual pedagogy.

“We did this so the students would be able to focus on the coursework rather than trying to learn a new language and the coursework at the same time,” she said.

Woman using American Sign Language
Western Oregon University’s Division of Deaf Studies and Professional Studies faculty are the reason its programs have achieved national recognition.

Thew Hackett said RMHC’s rehabilitation counselor with deaf track is one of three in the country, and the RMHC program overall is one of only four in the Region (Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho). The program was started to help address a significant national shortage of counselors with this specialty.

Florida resident Cara DiGiovanni, 28, is a deaf track student in WOU’s RMHC master’s degree program.

“The WOU faculty have been incredibly wonderful to provide course materials related to the deaf population as it pertains to my professional career,” DiGiovanni said. “The WOU faculty have been supportive for students like myself, and we are able to communicate through American Sign Language with the professors as well as my classmates to engage in discussions related to the assignments.”

A vocational rehabilitation consultant with the Florida Department of Education/Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, DiGiovanni plans to use the knowledge and tools from the graduate program to take the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) examination.

“With the deaf, deaf and blind, and hard of hearing community being the largest unemployed and underemployed population, it is truly my desire and ambition that we find a place in the workforce and lower the national unemployment rate for the deaf, deaf and blind and hard of hearing population,” she said.

Thew Hackett said the RMHC program was established on the belief that individuals with disabilities have the right to lead fulfilling, independent and productive lives.

“Thoroughly trained and competent rehabilitation professionals play an essential role in the realization of this right,” she said.

Growing up, Thew Hackett experienced many barriers as a member of Deaf community. Along with her colleagues, they are dedicated to making a difference for future generations.

“We want to do whatever is possible to break down barriers people are encountering,” she said. “We appreciate being able to train professionals who will be able to do that.”

A Partner in Supporting Students and Individuals

For more than 50 years, Western Oregon University’s Research and Resource Center with Deaf* communities (RRCD) has provided outstanding leadership to support deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing individuals and to train students for professional careers.

RRCD writes grants to assist students in fields such as interpreter training, deaf and hard of hearing education and rehabilitation counseling. Federal grants allow RRCD to provide more than $620,000 each year in stipends and tuition remissions for students in WOU’s undergraduate ASL/English Interpreting program, graduate level Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling program and month-long Rehabilitation Counseling with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Adults certificate program.

In the past 26 years, the RRCD has raised nearly $30 million in funding, primarily grants from the U.S. Department of Education. The RRCD’s mission and goals are to strive to expand and diversify the opportunity to serve the deaf communities in Oregon and nationwide.

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