New club brings silent culture into spotlight


Kira Suerth

Club founder Matt Smith and member Emily Simmons sign in the West Mall courtyard earlier this week.

Aurora Silavong, Staff Writer

Bearden High School is a colorful, diverse ecosystem within the Knoxville community. In its hallways, every continent is represented, and the melodies of a dozen languages blend into perfect harmony.

But there’s one important language spoken at Bearden that doesn’t make any sound at all.

The hearing-impaired community and its culture are often forgotten by those in the general hearing population. Bearden junior Matt Smith, along with school librarian Mrs. Kristen Heffern, hope to change that with their newly-formed American Sign Language (ASL) Club.

Smith is proficient in ASL, as he grew up with a deaf father. He got the idea to start the club when he took Ms. Karen Latus’s Spanish class.

Ms. Latus, who is also a social worker, is a competent signer, and the two discussed the lack of classes dedicated to teaching ASL to hearing students. Bearden does not currently offer an ASL course; however, Knox County Schools does offer a process allowing students to apply to take a dual enrollment course.

Smith was also inspired by his father’s experiences as a deaf person, particularly the stigma society places on the hearing-impaired.

“Hearing people tend to think that because someone is deaf, they have a major disability,” Smith said. “It is a ‘disability’, but it doesn’t mean deaf people can’t do things hearing people can do.”

Added Mrs. Heffern: “People think that people who are deaf can’t drive, that they can’t hold regular jobs.”

The club hopes to dispel these harmful ideas, as well as educate students about the complexities of deaf culture. Additionally, students will be taught the basics of ASL.

Activities will include group discussions led by Smith, supplementary readings, and watching videos that participants may sign along to. They will start with the alphabet, transitioning to more difficult concepts later.

“I’d love to learn how to do the Pledge Allegiance in sign language,” Mrs. Heffern said.

They also plan to invite Knox County sign language facilitators as guest speakers. Sign language facilitators provide translation services to deaf students and their families within schools, enabling these students to learn in an environment with their abled peers.

Smith and Mrs. Heffern hope this club can better educate hearing people that their deaf peers are not so different than they are, and that a deaf person is capable of being everything a hearing person can be. They can be parents, productive workers, and they can even be aircraft ground personnel.

“My father was a marshall for a couple of years,” Smith said. “He did the lights, and he directed airplanes.”

The club meets every Tuesday morning at 7:45 in the MakerSpace.