ASL program would provide Deaf, hard of hearing students greater chance at building community

Image By: Kalli Anderson

Research suggests American Sign Language may be the third most-used language in the United States. Yet, UW-Madison offers only one course on sign language — despite its own emphasis of “the study of languages, literatures and cultures.”

This led graduate student Johnny Duong and friends to form Sign Language Club, creating a space to teach interested students ASL, as well as discuss Deaf culture.

“It’s really just for people to start out,” Duong, who identifies as Deaf, said through ASL interpretation by Jeff Larson. “It’s a lot of fun, and we learn a lot.”

Larson, who himself identifies as hard of hearing and is a member of SLC, echoed this, saying the group is for people to learn from those who know and use ASL.

Both Duong and Larson noted the large student demand for the one class that is offered, Sign Language I, in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department.

However, the course is not intended to provide a holistic teaching of ASL. Rather, it is designed for students interested in clinical professions — such as audiology or speech language pathology — to have a foundational understanding of sign language and awareness of Deaf culture, according to clinical professor Michelle Quinn.

Though the course offers core competency for the major and discipline of communication sciences and disorders, a larger, more established ASL program would offer greater breadth and understanding of vocabulary and grammar — as well as an opportunity for more curriculum on cultural awareness and increased community outreach.

As of now, Quinn said the course shifted from being a lab-based graduate course to a survey-based course enrolled mostly by undergraduate students.

“Our department saw that as an important interface for all students,” she said. “And so once we took it from being a lab-based class to more of a survey-based class, then we could accept more people into the course.”

Still, less than 150 seats are available each fall — the only semester Quinn offers the course.

There is another offering for an eight-week summer session of the course, though the professor commutes from Milwaukee. The course style is more immersive as well: The professor is Deaf and communicates using ASL, and doesn’t use oral spoken language with the students, according to department chair Dr. Ruth Litovsky.

Even so, Larson said that some of his friends within the CS&D discipline are “disappointed” by the lack of a larger sign language program, especially as the university promotes its “many” language programs.

ASL is widely used, especially in the United States, and even formally recognized by UW faculty decades ago as meriting foreign language credit. Yet, no multi-course program has been established by the university — and that should change. 

Litovsky expressed, “We’ve always wanted to do more.”

For now, Sign Language Club remains a way for students to learn ASL outside of the CS&D department — though this may soon change.

“We’re thinking about stopping the club next semester, because UW’s finally starting to [look] for ASL teachers,” Duong said. 

UW-Madison recently announced a new cluster hire initiative for language science faculty — including a specialist in American and other sign languages. It is unclear at this time whether this faculty will teach a course in ASL or another course within relevant departments.

The intended faculty member, however, would conduct important research in American and other Sign Languages, according to McBurney access consultant Kate Lewandowski.

Lewandowski, who identifies as culturally Deaf, hopes the research will benefit others in the Deaf community — both on a national and local scale.

“The faculty hire for the ASL and other sign languages may potentially draw more Deaf professionals to the university and the Madison community,” she said through an ASL interpreter. “Additionally, as a result of this position, Deaf and hard of hearing students may see their culture, language, and identity validated by the university… That is priceless.”

Larson said that without providing more of a program, the university isn’t acknowledging the Deaf community.

“UW isn't really recognizing the presence of Deaf people, and they're not recognizing it through not having sign language at UW,” he said.

When asked about having a full sign language program, Larson said that it’s almost necessary considering the other language programs offered at UW-Madison, and the use of sign language nationwide.

Lewandowski said that while UW is the only university in the Big Ten that continues to provide courses on both ASL and Manually Coded English, it lacks an established ASL program unlike most other peer institutions.

Moreover, within the UW System, UW-Milwaukee is known for its sizable ASL program, allowing for a larger Deaf community on campus, according to Duong.

Yet, if UW-Madison built out an ASL program, students would have increased opportunity and incentive to learn the language.

“If UW-Madison set up an ASL program, and hearing students started learning it, it opens up a lot of opportunities for Deaf and hard of hearing students to meet others,” Lewandowski said. “That social connection is so important.”

As it stands, Litovsky and Quinn cite UW administration's budgetary decisions and allocation of resources as the main concern in creating a more established program. 

Though the university has posted a new position within the cluster hire, there should be a greater push to hire experienced faculty. And if a program were to be established, members of the faculty should include those who identify with the Deaf and hard of hearing community.

Both current faculty and members of the Deaf community believe students are interested in a larger program. Moreover, it would shift the burden away from those who use ASL and sign language to communicate with others unfamiliar with the language. 

“I'm really excited [if] the school looking for a new ASL professor,” Duong said. “I just want to move on to like my other things so that another person will take over the job of being an ASL professor.”

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