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ASL Is on the Rise - But It's Not Always Part of the Deaf Experience

Kassidy Arena

American Sign Language is now the third most popular language college students choose to learn. According to the Modern Language Association most recent report, 107,060 students in higher education chose to learn ASL. This puts the language right behind Spanish and French, but before German.



ASL is the primary language for deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate, but not all deaf and hard of hearing people use it.

Sammie Davidson studies graphic design at the University of Missouri. She wears cochlear implants to help her hear, but she is still legally deaf. She does not rely on sign at all, and still functions well in all of her aspirations. She cheers for the university, has strong relationships with her roommates and takes care of her pug.

“I’m deaf. I’m just very blunt about it,” Davidson said. “Better to get it out there easily than kind of like walk around the subject then approach it.”

Davidson has hearing parents and hearing brothers. She did attend a deaf school when she was younger, but since she didn’t sign at home, she decided to go to “mainstream” schools. Davidson instead reads lips and relies on the electrical impulses from her cochlear implants to her brain. Her friends and teammates just need to make sure to speak clearly and in her direction.

Even though Davidson operates just fine in her everyday life, not all deaf people are like her. Stephanie Logan is the executive director of DeafLEAD. The Columbia nonprofit works to provide resources for deaf and hard of hearing people within the community. Logan went deaf at the age of 23 and since then, has become fluent in ASL, earned her PhD and has taught ASL at MU.

“When I was exposed to American Sign Language, it utterly changed my life because suddenly, I was able to communicate in a totally different way,” Logan said.

According to Communication Service for the Deaf, 70 million people in the world use a type of sign language. ASL is used in the United States, but there are hundreds of different types of sign, correlating to different spoken languages.

The wide variety of sign and the way people use it lead Logan to believe it is something a little more than hand signals.

“American Sign Language is just art. And I think everyone should be able to experience great art,” Logan said.

But like art or language studies, it’s up to the individual. Davidson does not use it, though she is deaf. She goes through life without major obstacles. But ASL can also serve as a lifeline for deaf or hard of hearing people who want to find a different way to connect to the world.

Correction: The audio version of this story and the accompanying script, below, have been updated to remove an inaccurate statistic on the numbers of Americans impacted by hearing loss. 

Here’s the script version of this story by Kassidy Arena:

ANCHOR INTRO: Almost one million people in the United States are deaf. They can’t hear anything at all. But the word “deaf” does not include people who wear hearing aids or people who need captions for movies. These numbers have led more people to use ASL as a second language, including students at MU, where ASL is offered as a foreign language. KBIA’s Kassidy Arena has more.


Most deaf people can’t talk to one another using sound, but they can use their other senses. American Sign Language, or ASL, consists of making hand signs for certain words. But that’s not all it is.

Stephanie Logan is the executive director of the Columbia nonprofit, DeafLEAD. Her job is to make sure deaf and hard of hearing people have all the resources they need in the community, like translators, legal help and education.


“American Sign Language itself, the actual signing is just ten percent. But when you actually put the facial expression in and the body language, it completely changes it.”


To show me what she means, Logan runs her hands together in a “T” for the word nice. At first, she smiles.

*Nat pop “nice”

Then she wiggles her eyebrows.

*Nat pop “niiiice”

Then she rolls her eyes.

*Nat pop “Nice”

ASL conveys so much for the deaf and hard of hearing community, but don’t let this mislead you, not all deaf and hard of hearing people sign. Sammie Davidson is a sophomore at MU. She’s deaf, but she doesn’t really use sign at all.


“Actually I’ve had people know that I’m deaf and they’ve tried to sign to me before and I have no idea what they’re saying. If I speak to you, I probably want to be spoken back to.”


Davidson doesn’t have anything against using sign, it’s just something she’s found she doesn’t need. She’s a cheerleader, she goes to class and she hangs out with friends. Occasionally her friends need to talk louder or speak in her direction, but Davidson doesn’t feel left out at all.

*Nat pop of talking while making dinner

Caroline Robison, Davidson’s friend and current roommate didn’t even realize her friend was deaf for a long time.


“I got to know Sammy as a person and it wasn’t, ‘Oh Sammie is deaf. Ever really. It was just, oh my gosh, I know Sammie, she’s so great.”

Davidson is studying graphic design and she’s received some nice scholarships due to her deafness, but other than that, she just wants to be treated like anyone else.


“Life has worked out pretty well for me, so I don’t have much to complain about.”

But deaf culture goes way beyond Davidson’s story. Not all deaf people know sign language, which Davidson shows us, but not all deaf people are like Davidson.

Logan went deaf at the age of 23 and decided to learn ASL right away.


“When I was exposed to American Sign Language, it utterly changed my life because suddenly, I was able to communicate in a totally different way.”

Logan says it is totally up to the individual whether or not they want to learn how to sign. In Sammie Davidson’s case, Logan says she respects everyone’s choice, especially if that choice is what’s most effective for them. She does wish all deaf and hearing people had at least a basic knowledge of ASL.


“I think that American Sign Language is art. It’s just…it’s just art. And I think everyone should be able to experience great art.”


American Sign Language is just that—a language. ASL and deafness usually go hand-in-hand, but not always.

I’m Kassidy Arena, KBIA News, Columbia.

Kassidy Arena was the Engagement Producer for KBIA from 2022-2023. In her role, she reported and produced stories highlighting underrepresented communities, focused on community outreach and promoting media literacy. She was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated with a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
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