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Jan 30, 2013

Which Comes First – Counseling or Sign Language?

Since the submission of my last blog post about deaf individuals and some of their negative experiences in counseling, I have been seriously touched and somewhat humbled by the outpouring of communication I have received not only from counselors and counseling students; but also from deaf and hard of hearing individuals themselves. Many had stories of their own to share, some were hoping for assistance in finding referrals and support; while others had questions as to how they can help and what they can do to improve counseling services for the deaf and hard of hearing – mainly for individuals who use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary means of communication.

I thought it may be of benefit to share with other counselors, through this blog posting, some of the ideas and thoughts I have shared via email with others. The million dollar question seemed to be where people can learn sign language and what should come first – mastery of the language prior to counselor training or vice versa. Here are some ideas that I have shared:

ASL can be learned at any time. It doesn’t require anything more than motivation and a willingness to learn. An advanced degree in linguistics, counselor certification, or other prerequisite training is unnecessary. No matter where someone is in their quest to become a counselor or earn an advanced degree in the field, it is always beneficial to learn to communicate in sign language. Basic sign language, being able to finger spell your name or know how to communicate greetings or general indications, can be of tremendous help not just in working with deaf and hard of hearing clients, but also in nonverbal communication for those with other challenges.

It can also be therapeutic…I have had several people tell me they gained self confidence in their presentation of self as well as creativity in expression through training in sign language. Joining a sign language class can also open up doors to new communities of people that one would previously lack access to. Often, classes are held at schools for the deaf where interaction with new parents of deaf children, newly hard of hearing individuals, and people excited at the prospect of learning a new skill can freely interact together and engage in activities and exercises designed to promote self-expression.

Many people can find these classes through their community schools and churches. Often there are ‘meet up’ groups where hearing can engage in interaction with those communicating in sign language in a coffee shop or bookstore. Looking online for deaf events is another great way to embark on this journey – attending a deaf comedy night, a deaf professional happy hour, or even a community volunteer event to raise money for deaf schools or charities can be another medium.

While there are a tremendous amount of classes that can be enrolled in at cost – such as through community colleges and larger universities, online training via Skype and webcam, etc.; the very best way to learn sign language and about the deaf culture in general is to interact with deaf people. Learn from them. Engage. Try your hand at communication even if you’re all thumbs and elbows in the beginning – the very best way to learn is to dive in head first and crack open “The Joy of Signing” later.

Gallaudet University has various psychology degrees where hearing people can obtain the best of both worlds – gaining both a counselor education and an exposure to the language and culture of the deaf. It’s not a requirement that students have hearing loss to apply or enroll in Gallaudet. I have known several people (some hearing and others with various degrees of hearing loss) who attended school on the campus, beginning with little or no signing skills, who quickly advanced in their communication abilities – both being able to communicate in sign language themselves and being able to understand sign language communicated to them.

There really is no right or wrong way to go about it. Some people complete counseling degrees while socially gaining sign language schools and picking up on more intense training upon completion of their degrees – especially if they are hoping to specialize in counseling for individuals with hearing loss. Others often focus their education on sign language interpreter training programs and go on to work as professional interpreters, later receiving counseling degrees and transitioning one line of work into the other – or even maintaining both by respecting professional boundaries and confidentiality of the deaf community they are working in.

In all, I was blown away by the communication I received from people – so many out there with an interest in creating a counseling specialty for unique populations with various challenges. I enjoyed reading people’s ideas, plans, goals, and was thoroughly honored to be asked for input and advice. I especially loved hearing from deaf and hard of hearing people who are not in the counseling field, but read my blog post and wished to share their own experiences – many noting the importance of self-advocacy and sharing with their counselors their communication needs. It’s been a great ride since my last posting – lots of positive interactions with others in the field – I’m definitely looking forward to more and certainly invite others to share their experiences and ideas below on this topic.

Shannon Ruane is a Counselor and Certified Rehabilitation Counselor in private practice in Philadelphia, PA. Fluent in American Sign Language, a fan and practitioner of hypnotherapy; Shannon can be found at

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  1. 5 Delia Regalado 29 Dec
    Hello Shannon Ruane,
    I am currently a third year undergraduate at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio and I am currently doing Graduate school research. I am majoring in Psychology and have taken all the American Sign Language classes my school has to offer. I'm looking for advise on how to integrate the two as I move on into graduate school. I would ideally love to be working with those who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing in a clinical setting. Do you have any advice?

    Thank-you for your consideration and time,
  2. 4 Patricia 21 Jan
    Sign Language or being Deaf comes first.  I am fed up with hearing counselors even those who can sign.  i prefer a deaf counselor, period. 

    Della, hearing counselors are better off working with hearing people only.  They hurt us because they get on insurance list and say they can sign.  They force us to see hearing counselors when we want to see deaf counselors. Most hearing counselors can't even understand our signing, but they have the nerve to say they know ASL.
  3. 3 Anne 17 Jul
    Comment above hits the nail on the head.  We are tired of working with hearing counselors or therapists or psychologists who can sign.  Deaf people understand us better. I received counseling services from Dr. Candace McCullough and her associates.  They were fabulous and professional.
  4. 2 M. John 23 Aug
         I agree with the above comments. I am Deaf, I don't "know" ASL, I live it. The best part is I am also in Rehabilitation Counseling graduate school at the University of Idaho Boise Campus and I am astounded by the number of counselors who don't pay attention during their training periods. Its great to want to help others but cultural competency is more important than a desire to get involved. Sometimes a counselor just has to say no and refer a client! I think hearing counselors who "know" ASL have no business working with Deaf clients unless the client prefers that specific counselor. The most important thing is helping our clients and not our paycheck.
  5. 1 Will 17 Feb
    Well if these commenters were trying to dissuade "hearing counselors" from learning sign language to help deaf clients, they did it. I was thinking about learning how to sign to connect with more clients, especially if there was a need for it, but apparently people who are deaf in need of counseling services don't want "hearing counselors".

    For the record, not everyone has the luxury of having a counselor who has major similarities as the clients they see. Not all veterans get to see a veteran counselor for example. I hope there's enough deaf counselors out there, and I hope their caseloads of deaf clients are sustainable enough to stay in practice.


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