Deaf history and culture have an advocate at Stony Brook University in Victoria “Tori” Vasta ’21.
Diagnosed at any early age to be 95 percent without hearing in her left ear, Vasta is dedicated to raising awareness of and helping people learn American Sign Language (ASL), and understand deaf culture.
In fact, her College of Business honors project is on that very topic.
Vasta credited Professor Margot Palermo, the director of the Business Honors Program in the College of Business, for motivating her to achieve her project goals. She added that Professor Stephanie Patterson, her Business Honors Program advisor, helped her stay on track with monthly meetings to make sure she was following her yearly schedule that the two collaborated on over the summer, which is a requirement for her project. Patterson also guided her through the challenges of being fully remote.
Her project, which won’t be completed until she presents it at URECA (Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities) on May 6, is essentially an introduction to inclusion of ASL on campus.
Since there is currently no ASL club or classes, Vasta considers it her responsibility to help others better understand disability accessibility. “I feel as if I always hear the phrase ‘disability inclusion,’ which is amazing, but I rarely hear what that means or would look like,” said Vasta, adding that to her, it means being able to communicate the most basic words to people.
“ASL is such a beautiful language with a rich culture. It’s an entire language with its own set of rules and it may be overwhelming to pick a place start,” she said. “I’m giving people that starting place, teaching how to ask basic questions, and from there giving them the chance to speak up about what they want to learn so the signs are easier to remember.”
Vasta said that because of the pandemic, during which people are required to wear masks in public and sound is compromised during video chat meetings, there are new challenges and it’s important to know how to accommodate those who have significant hearing loss whenever it is possible.
“Not being able to read lips hinders people’s communication severely,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt for people to learn a few signs, but that seems like a tall task to ask. If instructors ensure there are captions available during videos and some form of written communication, it still includes deaf people in the conversation.”
One of Vasta’s priorities— recreational sign language sessions — has also been hindered by the pandemic. Being completely online makes it more difficult to find people who may be interested in learning sign language, and the hectic nature of remote learning complicates aligning people’s schedules for those sessions.
“Last semester I had a very small but loyal group of people who came to meetings eager to learn, and excited to practice signing and see their progress,” she said.
Vasta recommends students who are in need of extra help should take advantage of the resources provided by the Student Accessibility Support Center (SASC). On March 16, she hosted an online event with Ashley Alesi, an Accessibility Support counselor, which reviewed how to accommodate events and what inclusion looks like for people with all types of disabilities. She also explained how to accommodate them on Zoom and on social media posts, as well as making tutorials on providing captions. Additionally, Alesi identified the Center’s resources and accommodations, how to implement them in their day-to-day lives, and how to be conscious of accessibility issues.
In addition to SASC, Vasta recommended staying in regular contact with professors to make them aware of unmet needs and desired accommodations. “If I ever feel like I’m struggling I try to reach out to them and ask questions, but the use of online captions during classrooms has been a huge relief.”
Vasta always wanted to learn sign language but never dedicated the time, until she was out of school for a week with a concussion during her junior year of high school.
“In my boredom, I downloaded an image of the ASL alphabet and memorized it in a day,” she said, adding that she was secretary of the ASL club at her previous school, SUNY Purchase, where she learned simple and later more complex signs, as well as proper grammar. She transferred to Stony Brook in Fall 2019.
“In that spring semester I took a basic ASL class and became much more immersed in it and became good friends with my professor,” she said. “From that experience I’m able to understand and hold conversations fairly well and I am constantly teaching myself new words to stay in practice.”
One of Vasta’s greatest satisfactions comes from enlightening others about deaf history and culture. Deaf History Month takes place from March 13-April 15. March 13 marked the end of the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement; in 1988, the students of Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf, protested and marched against the board of education who elected a hearing president over well-qualified deaf candidates. April 15 was the day the first public school for the deaf opened in 1817. Vasta said she has scheduled her ASL professor to come in and teach more about deaf history during Deaf History Month.
Until she is able to take additional classes in sign, Vasta is learning on her own. She practices conversations with her cousin, who learned the language and tutored ASL at New York University, and a few friends who are beginners.
“I can’t fully follow signing at news conferences, but I can pick out words and sentences. I wouldn’t consider myself fluent, but I’d say I’m somewhere between beginner and intermediate level conversationally,” she said.
— Glenn Jochum