Joseph Wheeler

ASL teacher and videologger (ASL THAT!)

I’d like to know more about your background. Are you from a Deaf family? Do you have any Deaf relatives?
I am the first Deaf person in my family. I was born Deaf and so was my sister. My entire family is hearing except for me and my sister. Now I a married to a Deaf New Yorker named Nicole. We have four Deaf kids.

Your schooling, high school, college adventures . . . I understand that you attended Indiana School and graduated from RISD.
When I was born deaf in rural Indiana, the doctor told my parents that I would not be able to drive a car, attend a college, nor get a job. My parents were devastated, but they did what they could do with their little knowledge at that time. They tried to have me learn speech, but that failed miserably. I flushed my hearing aids down the toilet. My parents then realized that I would be much happier being able to express myself naturally in ASL. We moved to Indianapolis so that I could attend ISD at age 4 in 1980. My parents were actively involved with PTCO, and they learned sign language. In 1985, my family moved to Rhode Island where I attended RISD. I had half days at mainstream programs, but I always enjoyed my time and sports at the Deaf school. After graduation, I went to RIT for Graphic Design. Then after working for three years as a graphic designer for a publication company in Arizona, I felt the job wasn’t right for me. Although I love arts, I did not enjoy being on the computer 24/7. After voluntarily teaching ASL at coffee shops for a couple of years, some of my friends told me I should teach ASL for a career. So I decided to go back to school and got MA in Secondary Education. I started teaching ASL for a public high school. Then in 2008, we moved to Indiana, where I continued to teach ASL to hearing HS students. I recently completed 13 years of teaching ASL, and love it.

What inspired you to teach ASL online?
I started teaching ASL at the age of 4, when I started attending ISD. My parents picked up a copy of the famous book, Joy of Signing, and they learned basic signs, and learned how to communicate with me. My first teacher at ISD was Linda Canty who was Deaf. She taught me a lot of ASL, along with my Deaf peers. Whatever I picked up on that day, I brought it home, and passed it on to my parents. I taught my relatives, neighbors, and whoever crossed my path.  I was always fascinated with ASL as a language. My Deaf friends and I often have ASL banters. Sometimes, we do the “have you ever noticed?” discussions because we experienced some SEE exposure during the 80’s and 90’s. We were always in awe of old ASL and we got to see that in Deaf clubs or sporting events at the Deaf school. As an ASL teacher, I participated in ASL standards committee twice. I attended workshops. Discussing ASL was always a passion of mine. I noticed that ASL resources were still lacking compared to other languages, and one of the 5 C’s of language - Community was a struggle for many ASL teachers. Then one day, an idea popped in my head, why not take advantage of social media? A lot of us use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. We could use that platform to discuss ASL. The more we share our ASL with others and discuss the language, the more we can learn and improve. Some regions already had signs for some concepts that others don’t, so if we shared these, we could have more solutions in our hands, pun intended!

What are the biggest challenges of your job?
The biggest hurdle of the job is to convince high-schoolers that another language such as ASL could benefit them in a variety of ways. It is not just about being able to use hands to communicate or acquisition of another language, or being bilingual. While that is a valuable skill to have, ASL benefits them by providing them with better ways to express themselves visually, improve spatial IQ, and eye-hand coordination. Another challenge is continuing to find ways for them to interact and experience authentic ASL in action. They are required to do a Deaf culture event every quarter, but since it is not legal to require them to make a field trip, they could and often watch TV or movies instead. Once they see how Deaf people have “life” such as social gatherings or sporting events at the Deaf school, they will then have a taste of what Deaf culture is.

What’s the most rewarding aspect? Have you gotten feedback from students who had to unlearn what they learned wrong, and appreciate your setting them right?
A few students of mine have been Deaf and Hard of Hearing, but around 99% are hearing. I remember meeting them during their freshman year, when some of them did not know any sign language. Usually, it is because their parents resisted the idea of them learning sign language, and wanted to use the oral method as the only method of communication. Then when they become junior, they take my ASL class, and it was amazing to see them discover ways to express themselves more naturally. ASL became a part of them, and they developed a stronger sense of identity and pride in being labeled as Deaf. Some of my former hearing students went on to become ASL interpreters, worked in some capacity with Deaf people, and a couple went to Gallaudet for their interpreting program. I always smile when Deaf locals tell me they met my ASL students in a variety of stores around town, and was able to make orders or requests in ASL.

What is your everyday life like? Do you have a 9-to-5 weekday job, or something that takes most of your waking hours?
I get up at 6 a.m. Since my kids are the first ones on the Deaf School bus, they have to get up early. After the bus takes the kids, I go to work for the rest of the day till 4 p.m. My kids get home around that time, and we start cooking dinner. We eat at around 5 p.m., and sometimes kids have sports practice, and usually they have homework. I help them with their homework and make sure they understand it and finish all of these. If weather cooperates, we go to parks, play a game of monster chase, or go out for ice cream. If it is cold, we usually play board games, read books, or make ASL vlogs.

If you’d like to say anything about your family (I understand that you have four Deaf children), we welcome that!
Nicole and I have four Deaf kids. Soleil and Gianna are two 9-year old twin girls. Matthew is 5 years old. Ainsley is age 3. All of them attend Indiana School for the Deaf. They started ISD at age 3, and we are a big advocate of Early Childhood programs led by Deaf schools for Deaf children. That is a very valuable learning experience for these kids, so they become kindergarten-ready. Yes, we are Deaf and can teach our Deaf kids a full language, however, their Deaf peers and teachers are just as important. It takes a village to raise a child.

Soleil is a hilarious girl, who loves to act. She is artistic and creative. Gianna is academic-oriented, a mother hen, likes to take care of siblings. Both of them love animals and we have a mini Schnauzer named Jack. Matthew is energetic, asking the why’s, and is conversational. Ainsley’s language recently blossomed, showing more of her personality, loves to tease, and is playful.

What do you enjoy doing “out of office”?
I enjoy being a father to my kids. I enjoy having conversations with my wife. I enjoy watching ASL vlogs, learning from them, participate in discussions, and create my own vlogs too.

Anything you’d like to add or say about your life, teaching, family, the Deaf community, our ongoing battle?
The more you share or contribute, the more gets circulated. If you advocate ASL, language rights for Deaf children, it means a lot to the community. The community needs all the help it can to preserve. I hope that ASL vlogs by everyone will inspire others to do sign more, vlog more, and spread ASL. ASL is a language that lives within us.  A battle of mine, a pet peeve of mine is when someone says, “That is not an everyday word, so just spell it out.” That is when ASL will hit a plateau. Its vocabulary is not going to expand if we limit ourselves to everyday words. Borrowing from English can be convenient for some, but it is at the expense of ASL. We need to share, discuss, and circulate more ASL jargons, so it can become a more full-fledged language.

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