How Northwest Youth Corps’ American Sign Language Crews Overcome the Communication Barrier

Northwest Youth Corps (NYC) has developed a program dedicated to recruiting Deaf and Hard of hearing youth, and deploying them as American Sign Language (ASL) Inclusion crews. This fits into the Corps’ mission. Since 1984, the Corps has strived to provide opportunities for youth and young adults to learn, grow, and experience success. They focus on giving youth chances to experience education, challenges, community service, and develop critical life and leadership skills. NYC enrolls over 1000 young people each year.

Emma Bixler was crucial to making the American Sign Language program a reality. She is the Inclusion Coordinator of the program. She stays with the crew for most of the summer program not only as the coordinator but as the interpreter as well. She helped bring the program to life, after working on similar inclusive crews at Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa.

The ASL crews consist of ten young people between the ages of 16 and 19, whom are Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing. They are accompanied by two Crew Leaders, who are fluent in ASL. The ASL crews work throughout the state of Oregon and in Northern California to maintain and construct hiking trails, restore habitat for native plants and animals, and complete many other environmental conservation projects.

As part of the experience, Corpsmembers who can hear learn American Sign Language and other lessons throughout their term of service so that they can better communicate with their peers.

“We give them flash cards and some lessons to go over, so they can learn basic signs to communicate with the Deaf youth… The growth that occurs with communication over the next five weeks is very impressive… To see that growth is really exciting.” says Gruening.

Gruening says that after an initial period of acclimation, the ASL Inclusion crews have a similar experience to other crews.

“They have the same amount of challenges any other crew would have: they are all out of their comfort zones, not being able to sleep in their beds, no showers, not being able to go on their cell phones.”

Each of the crews in the summer program get to meet during the weekends. The first couple of weeks are a little shaky but through fun activities and bonding experiences, the crews get better every day at communicating to the point where they don’t require an interpreter.

The ASL Inclusion Crew program at Northwest Youth Corps is about so much more than land conservation and leadership development. It’s about uniting Deaf youth and hearing youth so that they have a common experience.

Gruening remarks that “I wish people could see what I see, when I see all the youth the first week off in their own little corner like really shy and quiet, you know? Not really wanting to engage with everyone. Then by the end of the five weeks they are this huge group that have learned to overcome the communication barrier. While also just learning to have fun and work with each other, even though it might be difficult.”

You can watch a video demonstration advertising the ASL InclusionCrew program below: