Reading the Signs


Every week in the College of Health and Behavioral Studies building is a class full of students eager to learn. There are quizzes, lectures and homework, but in this classroom, students communicate with their professor and one another using their hands.

Rachel Bavister is an American Sign Language professor who teaches at JMU and Blue Ridge Community College. She was born in Luton, Bedfordshire, England, and has spent her life communicating through British and American Sign Language. Though born with hereditary deafness, Bavister doesn’t see it as a hinderance and spends her life doing what she loves to do: education.

“I love teaching,” Bavister says during a pen and paper interview. I “love to plan a lesson and include/involve all my students and see them learn.”

Bavister’s been the Sign II instructor for about 10 years. If she were to live her life again, Bavister would choose to remain Deaf, with one change.

“I would like to be reincarnated in the present where equal access is a right,” Bavister says. “When I was growing up, this was not so … Today, the Americans with Disabilities Act  guarantees equal access. I would have 10 Ph.D.s.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a labor law that prohibits discrimination and gives people with disabilities equal opportunity to participate in mainstream American life.

Growing up, Bavister and other deaf individuals were often treated by other people as if they didn’t know how to do things themselves.


“I was at boarding school most of the time and school was different in that we were expected to be independent,” Bavister says. “I liked that; then when we came home the world treated us like we were incompetent.”

Bavister attended Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and then JMU and the Catholic University of America before the ADA was passed, studying without interpreters. Despite the advancements made since the ADA was passed, and the fact that ASL is the No. 4 studied language on college campuses, many universities don’t accept language credits for ASL.

Bavister believes placing limitations on ASL as a language is dangerous because ASL is a driving force that encourages interaction and change, and is a common bond for much of the Deaf community.

The general public often misunderstands the difference between “Deaf” and “deaf.” Deaf with an uppercase “D” refers to someone active in the Deaf community and Deaf culture, while a lowercase “d” refers to the audiological condition of being unable to hear.

When people unfamiliar with the Deaf community talk to Deaf people, Bavister recommends treating them as normally as possible. She says if oral communication is a problem, written communication is acceptable. Bavister has made great efforts to involve herself in helping preserve the quality of life for members of the Deaf community. She’s a long-standing member of the Virginia Association of the Deaf, the National Association of the Deaf, and both the National and Virginia Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Bavister has also served two terms on the Advisory Board of the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and one term on the Viriginia School for the Deaf and Blind’s Board of Visitors. She’s also an adviser to LEAD-K VA, which works on getting legislation through the General Assembly to ensure all deaf children will be kindergarten ready.

Bavister’s mission extends to preparing presentations for national conferences. In February, a friend at Shenandoah University saw a call for papers on ASL from the Mountain Interstate Foreign Language Conference. Bavister worked on a piece and submitted it. The paper was accepted, but no one showed up.

“I don’t dwell on it,” Bavister says. “I’ll just try again in 2017.” Bavister’s students appreciate her passion for teaching and the experiences ASL has given them.

“There are people who are deaf all over the country and anywhere that you go,” Kelsey Hineman, a senior modern foreign languages major and student of Bavister’s, says. “So it’s always helpful if you can say a couple words in ASL and let people know that they’re not alone with a gigantic communication barrier.”

Bavister enjoys introducing students to ASL and Deaf culture, but when class is over, she continues to be an important leader in the Deaf community.

“I’ve done a lot of other stuff, but fighting for Deaf children I won’t give up on,” Bavister says.

Photos by Janelle Jackson