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ASLI program brings sign language to the arts Program faculty and alumni sign for Disney’s “The Lion King”

The Hobby Center and the American Sign Language Interpreting (ASLI) Program at the University of Houston have just completed the first year of a successful collaboration to bring sign language to the arts. A native Houstonian, ASLI Program Coordinator Sharon Hill remembered a time when the Houston Theater District offered shows with sign language interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing community to attend. In 2015, Professor Hill reached out to the Audience Services Manager at the Hobby Center downtown, Ms. Judi Stallings.

“I emailed Judi and we corresponded for nearly a year, and she understood the need for increased accessibility for Houstonians that are deaf,” says Professor Hill.

By April 2016, a tentative partnership was reached to test the waters by providing ASLI seniors to offer sign language interpretation for one production of the musical, Oliver!

“I assigned seven of our seniors to work on the musical and we spent collectively nearly 300 hours rehearsing the timing, analyzing visual cues, researching the meaning of lines and music and determining linguistic equivalence,” explains Hill.  

Having successfully sold out the seats allotted for the deaf and hard of hearing community, the collaboration continued with the following shows having ASL interpretation: Wicked, In the Heights, The King & I, Dreamgirls, and Fun Home.

The final show for the 2016-2017 season was the Broadway musical The Lion King. The Hobby Center arranged for a pre-show reception for all ASLI guests, giving them VIP access to chat with the actors who played the roles of Simba and Pumbaa. As a special treat, ASLI faculty (Professor Hill and Professor Merrilee Gietz) teamed with ASLI alumni Brittany Best, Kristina Rodriguez and Barae Frizzel to interpret this show. This was a unique experience for all in attendance as Prof. Gietz is deaf and worked as a deaf interpreter, providing her native language as the language model for the role of Mufasa.

The deaf audience was enthralled with the show and the interpretation. One deaf patron explained in ASL, “I’ve never attended a show with interpreters…for the first time, I understood the meaning and nuances of a show. This was life-changing!”

Special acknowledgment goes to the UH CLASS Dean, Dr. Antonio D. Tillis, who supported this event by donating tickets to the Chair of the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, Dr. Lynn Maher, for her attendance and support of the ASLI alumni and faculty.

“This collaboration has been a blessing. Working with the ASLI Program at UH is nothing short of amazing. When I think of the amount of hours and the attention to detail the interpreters give, just to deliver one show, it blows me away,” relates Judi Stallings, Audience Services Manager for the Hobby Center.

The 2017-2018 season will feature the following shows with ASL interpreters: Sleeping Beauty and her Winter Knight, The Color Purple, School of Rock, Hamilton and Guys and Dolls. To learn more,