Students Learn to Speak Without Talking in ‘No Voice Zone’

Although their classes may be done for the day, the learning isn’t, as hundreds of RIT students gather at 10 p.m. each Wednesday in the CSD Student Development Center.

The hour-long session, called “No Voice Zone,” or NVZ, has hearing students flocking to learn sign language and information about deaf culture from students at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

“It’s important for me to communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing students on campus and to learn from them about their culture,” said Lorenny Mota, a graduate student in professional studies from the Dominican Republic, who attended her first NVZ in October.

NVZ was started in the winter quarter of 2000 by two former residence advisers who wanted to provide something for students to do during the winter, when there were fewer activities. Twenty or 30 students attended the first meetings that year; this year, more than 300 students typically attend. Those who come 10 times get a free T-shirt.

“This is something that has really bloomed in the last few years,” said Ashley Meyer, coordinator of Residence Life, which sponsors NVZ. “It’s amazing that this amount of people want to take advantage of this opportunity to learn some sign language.”

Rachel Berry, a first-year engineering exploration student from Fairmount, N.Y., knew basic fingerspelling before she attended NVZ this year. Each week, she’s expanding her sign language vocabulary.

“It’s a great way to learn more about deaf culture and interact with others in the community,” she said.

An interpreter voices during the first few minutes when the group gathers. The rules are explained, then several groups are formed with others who have similar experience in sign language, from beginners to those who can carry basic conversation to experienced signers.

The groups occupy the first and second floors of the SDC. Each person is asked their name, where they are from and what they are studying. They learn the words they are most likely to use in their conversations. Portable white boards are used to write on. Themes are chosen each week, often to tie in with other events, such as LGBT Ally Week and Latin America Deaf Club activities.

Some group leaders are interpreting majors, like Richard Loya of Sylmar, Calif. He was new on campus three years ago, studying civil engineering technology. Seeing more than 1,200 deaf and hard-of-hearing students on campus, his curiosity about them caused him to want to learn sign language.

“I think I was probably fascinated by the language,” Loya said. He switched majors and now has a goal to become a professional interpreter.

Karen Blanco, a third-year nutrition management major from Caracas, Venezuela, also attends NVZ each week. “I love it. I really do,” she said. “I made many deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing friends here.”

She knew “nothing at all” about sign language or deaf culture prior to coming to RIT.

“It is so worth it,” Blanco said. “It might feel awkward at first, but friendships built here are truly lasting.”