ASL Idol seeks to engage deaf, hearing communities

Hayley Glatter, A&E Editor


Ryan Seacrest and Paula Abdul have never seen performers like these.

For the first time, Northwestern’s American Sign Language Club will host ASL Idol on Saturday, a public event inviting performers to show off their signing and interpreting skills.

Club president Katie Lalla said the event will be a nice gateway for the NU community to learn about sign language.

“Deaf culture, but also the experience of ASL, is very different from any language you usually encounter,” Lalla, a Weinberg senior, said. “Having the experience of seeing somebody interpret something and understanding the differences … is very interesting.”

Performers are encouraged to pick any medium, from poems to monologues, to showcase their skills, but Lalla expects songs to be the most popular choice. Performances must include both signed and spoken components, and the top three winners, as determined by audience vote, will receive gift card prizes.

ASL Club’s incoming vice president Chanel Vargas, a former Daily staffer, will perform at ASL Idol, and said she is currently choosing between two songs to perform.

“I think in general people are just in tune with music,” Vargas, a Medill sophomore, said. “For me, music is a big part of my life … what started (sign language) for me was signing along with songs, so I think that’s why I chose a song, because it’s what I connect with.”

Incoming ASL Club president and Weinberg junior Marie Peeples will also be performing a song at ASL Idol.

“In the club, a lot of my favorite meetings have been the ones where we interpret songs, because I feel like ASL is really conducive to performance in that it’s really expressive,” Peeples said.

And that expressiveness is something that cannot be separated from sign language. Facial expressions are an integral part of ASL, Lalla said, and without it, the language is far more difficult to understand.

“It’s not just translating, it’s part of ASL,” Lalla said. “When I have vocal inflections, you would know if I was asking a question because of the way my voice sounds. And the same thing goes for sign language. It’s a grammatical thing; it also gives you more context about stories.”

For Vargas, this aspect of the language has manifested itself in non-ASL contexts, and she is cognizant of the non-verbal habits she has picked up through sign language.

“I’ve always been pretty quiet and shy, but in learning ASL, I’ve learned to be a lot more expressive facially,” Vargas said. “When you learn ASL, you gesture more when you speak … So I think it’s really cool that it just seeps into what you already know about language and gels with it.”

Vargas said ASL Idol will likely be the largest audience she has ever performed for, and both she and Lalla said the event is an important step to introduce sign language to the broader community.

“Unfortunately, Northwestern is not a particularly deaf-friendly area just because, first of all, we don’t offer any sign language classes,” Lalla said. “The sign language club is basically the only means of reaching out to the deaf community in any way around Northwestern.”

And by reaching out, Vargas hopes audience members will gain a broader understanding of what ASL is and what ASL club does.

“Our purpose in organizing the event was to make it appealing to everyone so they all feel included in learning ASL and being a part of our community,” Vargas said. “A lot of people see it as this foreign language or group that they can’t be a part of because they don’t know anything, but we encourage people who have never even tried sign language to come and join us.”

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