Skip to main content

Cody Neighbors, a fourth-year student in the Deaf Studies program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, sensed it the moment he walked onto the silent second floor of the Bailey Education Complex.

“It was like you were home,” says Neighbors, who is pursuing teaching licensure in American Sign Language (ASL) and education of the deaf and hard of hearing.

On the second floor of Bailey, where most of the program’s faculty have offices and students regularly congregate, everyone signs. It’s where anyone on campus can go to experience deaf language and culture.

Everyone has access.

Born to hearing parents in Rome, Georgia, Neighbors knows the difference that can make in a deaf person’s life. He attended a school for the deaf until middle school, when he transferred to a mainstream school. He struggled in English but found connection through football and went on to play at Gallaudet University. Back in Georgia after college, he met his wife, Rachel, a UT graduate and teacher for the deaf.

After bouncing between careers, he felt ready to step up and enter the classroom, where role models for deaf youth are so needed. Neighbors decided to attend UT and with his family relocated to Knoxville.

“I knew at UT I would get the education I need to be the kind of teacher and role model I want to become,” he says.

Cody Neighbors is a fourth-year student in the Deaf Studies program.
Cody Neighbors is a fourth-year student in the Deaf Studies program.

Housed in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education, UT’s Deaf Studies program has existed in some capacity since 1937. The program is fully bilingual, educating students in both English and ASL. Five of its nine faculty members are deaf, which coupled with its deaf programming and course offerings, makes UT the hub for deaf higher education in the Southeast.

“Our program is very dynamic,” says David Smith, research professor for deaf studies and director of UT’s Center on Deafness.

“We like to think we’re a hidden gem.”

This fall, deaf studies faculty will train more than 400 undergraduate students in ASL and prepare approximately 75 undergraduate interpreters and preservice teachers, like Neighbors, to serve as educators. Program alumni currently teach nationwide, from Tennessee to California, Kentucky, Maryland, and Michigan.

But the program is about more than just education. Embedded within it is a commitment, from the faculty down to the students, to provide an experience that recognizes and cherishes deaf individuals and culture, whether it is for first-year students interested in learning sign language or those in the final steps of a career educating the deaf and hard of hearing.

Students are not any more or any less important, regardless of their background. They are friends and peers preparing to enter the world as Volunteers on a mission to make a difference.

Empowering pioneers

In 2007, Darcy McAfee left Illinois for Knoxville, where she’s been an elementary school teacher and principal and is now a K–12 instructional coach at the Tennessee School for the Deaf (TSD).

“We want our students to understand, respect, and cherish deaf culture and community,” says Clinical Assistant Professor Cheryl Shahan.
“We want our students to understand, respect, and cherish deaf culture and community,” says Clinical Assistant Professor Cheryl Shahan.

Two years into her time there, McAfee met Kimberly Wolbers, a UT professor who provided training on a new approach to teaching language and writing skills called SIWI—Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction. The methodology, which is now implemented nationwide, provides an evidence-based framework for writing instruction that is responsive to the varied language needs of deaf learners.

“In our undergrad programs at the time, none of us had really been trained on how to teach writing in a way that recognizes students who sign and are not using prepositional phrases, adding an -s to the end of verbs, or using articles like a and the in the way we do in English,” says McAfee, who was a part of the first cohort at TSD using the approach.

“It changed the way I teach entirely,” she says.

During a recent class activity, McAfee had a student attempting to describe the details of a weekend sleepover at a friend’s house. He tried signing an explanation of the sleeping arrangements. McAfee, confused, asked if he would come up to the board to draw a picture.

“He drew bunk beds,” McAfee says. “For me, it was like, aha! We’ve got this.”

She gave the image an English label (bunk beds), then showed him how he could sign it using the sign for bed—a hand flat against the side of the face, followed by a slight tilt of the head—then take his two hands and place them flat and a few inches above each other in front of his body.

“Now he understands the concept of bunk beds and has the words in English and the sign for it,” she says. “That’s bilingualism.”

McAfee, who is not deaf, attended UT and earned a master’s degree in reading education in 2012 and a specialist in education degree in leadership studies in 2019. At the time of her master’s program, she looked to enhance her reading curriculum to help deaf students catch up—research shows that half of deaf individuals nationwide graduate high school at a fourth-grade reading level or lower.

“The professors didn’t make me fit a mold,” McAfee says. “I could say, ‘That’s great, but it won’t work on deaf students.’ They listened and gave me the freedom to try new things. It allowed me to be a pioneer at TSD.”

a student does sign language in a class
Deaf studies faculty train more than 400 undergraduate students a semester in American Sign Language.

TSD’s students have made huge gains. In the five years that McAfee taught reading to the school’s third through fifth graders, students entered middle school at or close to equivalent reading level.

The relationship between UT and TSD is synergetic. Located within five miles of each other, they share resources and personnel. McAfee has served as an adjunct professor at UT and hires a number of graduates at the school. It’s common to see teachers and students wearing TSD purple on Tuesdays and UT orange on Fridays.

Like Neighbors, John McMahon, a master’s student in education who is also deaf, relocated with his family in order to attend UT. His wife, Jessica, is now the principal of TSD. Recently McMahon produced a series of videos interpreting poetry for a reading curriculum to be implemented at the school and its coordinate campuses in Nashville and Jackson.

In spoken English, phonetic rhyming is common in poetry. ASL rhymes are presented visually, emphasizing information and tone.

“I want deaf students to be able to experience poetry in their native language and express themselves poetically,” McMahon says.

For the moment, McMahon is interning in a first-grade classroom at Farragut Primary School. He was resistant at first—unsure how it would apply to his professional future or whether he’d be out of his element. But the students quickly embraced him. He’s taught them basic signs—yes, no, boy, girl, line up, friend. Parents have told his supervising teacher how their kids come home excited and teach them the signs too.

“That’s empowering,” McMahon says. “I’m planting a seed in these young children. They’re viewing me as a human being, not as a stereotype.”

Adapting to serve

Maizie Vincent, a senior from Gallatin, Tennessee, followed in her family’s footsteps to UT. Initially she declared a major in audiology and speech pathology. Then, in her first ASL class the second semester of her first year, as she learned and interacted in silence, something changed.

“In our ASL classes, you’re always learning about deaf culture,” says Vincent, who is not deaf. “You realize quickly deaf people aren’t broken. They don’t need fixing. They just need access.”

After that class, Vincent switched her major to education with a focus on deaf studies. She immersed herself in the field, observing classes at TSD and attending game nights at Knoxville Center of the Deaf. With what she’s learned during her time at UT, she plans to work as a deaf educator and return to graduate school in hopes of eventually working to develop policy to increase accessibility for the deaf or people with disabilities.

“We want our students to understand, respect, and cherish deaf culture and community,” says Cheryl Shahan, clinical assistant professor and internship supervisor for the deaf and hard of hearing concentration. “We always ask ourselves as instructors, ‘How can we help our students not only become teachers but allies?”

Culture and the social justice issues that impact the community are at the core of the deaf studies curriculum. That emphasis is one of the reasons hearing students may arrive on campus seeking to learn sign language to better communicate with a deaf friend or family member then wind up fundamentally shifting their career path.

Professor Kimberly Wolbers signs during a class.
Professor Kimberly Wolbers signs during a class.

The pandemic has brought the issues affecting deaf people to the forefront. In a masked and distanced world, communication is much more difficult. There is no reading of lips. Deaf people can no longer tap one another on the shoulder to get attention. With deaf studies courses being conducted online, interns have been working with faculty members to identify technology solutions that work well both at the university level and in the grade schools where students and alumni are serving.

“Teachers have to think outside the box,” Wolbers says. “If a screen freezes, you cannot just shut off the video. If you have a class with 20 students, you need screens big enough so you can see who is signing. We’re always learning.”

All of it is done collaboratively. It doesn’t matter whether you can hear, like McAfee, Wolbers, and Vincent or are deaf, like McMahon, Neighbors, Smith, and Shahan. The commitment is to educate—to say the community has value and make sure no one lacks what they need to succeed.

By its very nature, UT’s Deaf Studies program is creating role models for the future.

Neighbors and McMahon often talk together about this responsibility. McMahon is among the 10 percent of deaf people born to deaf parents. He had language from the beginning and was relatively well prepared for mainstream schools. He thinks about the students at TSD who arrive with no signs or language, and the children at Farragut Primary who have embraced him. He wonders what a deaf child there might think when they see someone like him, leading and succeeding in a hearing world.

“I want to be that role model, the one who shows them what a deaf person can do if they’re given the chance,” McMahon says. “That’s what UT is preparing me to become.”

More info about the Deaf Studies program is available online.


Brian Canever (865-974-0937,

Jules Morris (865-719-7072,