Student-run group uses sign language to socialize

Penn In Hand Members of the student-run Penn In Hand at a Philadelphia 76ers basketball game.

One hundred and two pairs of hands on campus use American Sign Language (ASL) as part of a student-run group called Penn In Hand. Open to anyone in the University community who knows and uses ASL, the group welcomes those with an interest in learning how to sign, or people with a desire to simply learn more about deaf culture.

What makes the gatherings of Penn In Hand unique is that their events, which have included dinners, pizza parties, comedy performances and Deaf Awareness Nights at Philadelphia Phillies, Flyers and 76ers games, are silent.

“We don’t speak at all, so it can be frustrating for people who may not understand ASL,” says Penn In Hand president and College junior Arielle Spellun. “The best way to learn a language is by complete immersion, and the main focus of the group is to give those who are ASL learners an opportunity to sign and practice their signing in a comfortable environment.” Spellun and other members of Penn In Hand are not deaf.
While some events are better suited for those with at least a basic knowledge of ASL, Spellum says others are designed to be more inclusive, like the group’s movie nights, which are open to everyone. She says the movie nights are a great way for people to gain exposure to sign language and deaf culture. All of the films offer subtitles in English so people who do not know ASL can follow along.
“Being deaf is about more than just hearing loss,” Spellun says. “It is about gaining a new culture and language and contributing to the greater hearing community. I hope that we’re helping to show the hearing community all that the deaf community has to offer and maybe inspire more people to take classes in ASL.”
Spellun is currently working to develop an official ASL/Deaf Studies minor at Penn and hopes the University will become the first Ivy with a Sign Language and Deaf Studies-based minor.
Jami Fisher, coordinator of the ASL program at the Penn Language Center, says learning any new language provides an opportunity to experience a culture different from one’s own and “thereby broadens the individual’s academic and personal experiences.”
Although Penn In Hand does not teach ASL, it can direct staff and faculty interested in lessons to various ASL education programs and resources.

On Friday, Feb. 25, Evan Benshetler, one of the founding members of Penn In Hand, will host an hour-long event at 7 p.m. at Stouffer College House in the Mayer building to teach non-ASL users some basic American Sign Language and explore deaf culture topics. All are welcome.
Those interested in joining Penn In Hand can contact Spellun at or join the group on Facebook.


Originally published on February 24, 2011