Campus News Faculty Spotlight

Brian Leffler teaches more than communication

Brian Leffler is a senior lecturer of ASL in the Mary Frances Early College of Education’s communication sciences and special education department. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Fulfilling the Dream Award recipient builds an accessible space for Deaf community

Brian Leffler teaches more than American Sign Language. He’s teaching how important and significant communication is to humanity.

“Language and culture are human rights, and we celebrate them,” he said.

Leffler grew up in a family with both deaf and hearing members and learned to communicate by translating between people who speak and people who sign. Now, Leffler, who is deaf, teaches those same skills to others as senior lecturer of ASL in the Mary Frances Early College of Education’s communication sciences and special education department.

“Everyone has challenges in their lives. Let’s move past that and look at what’s next,” he said. “Language and culture should be accessible, and they shouldn’t be deprived. I’m living proof of how accessing language and culture has helped me achieve my personal dreams.”

Leffler credits his hearing parents, June and David Leffler, for being instrumental in modeling how he could be a leader in his own right through access to language and culture.

“They knew how to sign, which is not typical for all hearing parents who have deaf children,” he said. “So, it was a big win for me that not just one parent, but both, knew how to connect with me through sign language. They also made sure that I received an education that challenged me to reach my full potential.”

Leffler’s efforts to build a better understanding and awareness of the Deaf community were recognized recently with the President’s Fulfilling the Dream Award. Presented at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Breakfast, the award recognizes students, faculty, staff and community members who exemplify the words and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I feel honored and feel like I need to keep doing what I’m doing to allow others to keep doing what they’re doing with me,” he said. “I don’t see myself as just a classroom teacher, but really more of a community leader. Learning and education never stops.”

Leffler has always had an interest in education and envisioned himself teaching science at a deaf school. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in education, Leffler spent time teaching American Sign Language and interpreting at two community colleges; one in Seattle, Washington, and another in Annandale, Virginia, before joining the College of Education in 2013.

Since that time, Leffler has seen remarkable growth in the college’s ASL program, such as the addition of the ASL minor. He now works with three additional ASL lecturers—Laurie Achin, Amy Peterson and Debra Teesdale. Leffler said he is grateful to Dean Denise Spangler and his colleagues for their support in making a space for members of the Deaf community to thrive through language and culture.

“Teaching deaf youth to show who they are is important—to not feel like they have to follow society. I think it’s important to build those skills and grow that confidence,” he said.

Brian Leffler works to build space for the Deaf community. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

For Leffler, collaboration is key to building understanding. He frequently works with the audiologist, speech pathologist and special education students, as well as people from psychology and the theatre and film studies departments in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. Leffler also hopes to partner with other universities in the state on ways to showcase Deaf culture.

“We need people to know and have deaf and hard-of-hearing people involved in the picture more,” he said. “We want to remove stigmas and expose people to let them know it’s just a different way of communicating.”

Leffler also takes his students’ educational experience beyond the classroom. For two years, he has led a 10-day study abroad program that provides ASL students an opportunity to learn about Deaf culture and history in an immersive setting. He worked with Hands On Travel, a deaf-owned travel company to organize a trip guided by local deaf Parisians.

In addition to teaching, Leffler serves as the ASL Dawgs advisor. The student organization meets regularly to build knowledge and understanding about ASL and Deaf culture.

Outside of UGA, Leffler continues to be involved in the Deaf community. For example, he sits on the board of the Georgia Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and Hands In!, a local nonprofit that produces fully accessible workshops, classes and community events with a focus on language and culture access, theater and musicals.

In the future, Leffler hopes to see more opportunities for UGA’s Deaf community, with new courses and perhaps an ASL major. His doctorate experience in Deaf education encourages him to create more awareness in his field.

“I think of the quote, ‘I’m a good leader only if I bring good leaders out in people,’” he said. “To achieve the dream, we need to achieve it together—with my fingerprints and your fingerprints.”