Virginia Commonwealth University

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Law Boosts Sign Language, Deaf Culture

May 10, 2011

By Alyx Duckett, Alice Kemp and Kayla Wamsley
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Logan Gravitt is a student at Virginia Commonwealth University who is taking American Sign Language for her major, dance therapy. She has volunteered with the Special Olympics for 15 years and has encountered many deaf, blind and autistic people.

“That’s what got me into doing dance therapy,” Gravitt said. “I learned phrases of sign language, but I’d never be able to communicate with them fully.”

Most of the students in Gravitt’s ASL class are majoring in rehabilitation or a related field; the course is listed under rehabilitation counseling, not under languages. But ASL courses may grow in popularity and attract more students from different disciplines under a new state law. It requires Virginia’s public colleges and universities to accept ASL for foreign language credit.

Chauncey Jones, a graduate student at VCU, knew about the class because of her major, rehabilitation counseling.

“I know a lot of people who are in social work and were also taking this class because they were aware of where it was listed,” Jones said. “I was just kind of in the loop knowing it was offered through our program.”

ASL instructor Paige Berry says she wished more students knew about the class for more important reasons than fulfilling a major. She said ASL is an important language in today’s world.

“People still use it today because if you’re not able to communicate with someone, you tend to steer away from them and really lose out on the population,” Berry said.

The Virginia General Assembly agreed on the importance of ASL this year when it overwhelmingly passed House Bill 1435.

The law, which takes effect July 1, says high schools must “count completion of an American Sign Language course toward the fulfillment of any foreign language requirement for graduation.” Moreover, such courses “shall be counted toward satisfaction of the foreign language entrance requirements of a public institution of higher education in the Commonwealth.”

That law might help break down communication barriers by encouraging people to learn ASL – thus producing more active participants in the deaf culture.

HB 1435, sponsored by Delegate Richard P. “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, enjoyed bipartisan support. Even so, such laws are somewhat controversial.

Some people believe ASL should not be considered a foreign language because it is not written and because it is used primarily in America.

Also, in typical foreign language classes, students are taught about the culture that goes with the language: Students studying Spanish will learn about Mexico and Spain; students studying Italian will learn about Italian culture.

Some people question whether “Deaf culture” (the term is usually written with a capital D) is significant enough to have a cultural identify, with social beliefs, literary traditions, history and other shared values.

However, deaf people say their community does indeed have its own culture and customs.

In hearing culture, for example, it is considered rude to stare at someone, whereas in Deaf culture, staring is necessary in order to communicate. The same goes for dramatic gestures.

Also, hearing culture views being deaf as a disability and refers to it as “hard of hearing” or “hearing impaired.” This is an insult to deaf people because they do not think of themselves as having a disability. They call themselves deaf.

“The culture is very different – from the way hearing people say hello to goodbye, to how long they stay,” Berry said. “It’s visual and it’s gestural, whereas other languages are really based on words where this is not. It’s based on concepts.”

While some may debate whether deaf people have their own culture, there’s no debate over the fact that ASL is widely used in the United States.

“It doesn’t matter what your career is,” Berry said. “You could run into a deaf person anywhere, and if you had a little bit of knowledge, just think of overcoming that communication barrier. It’s all about the communication and equal access – whether it’s services, to a grocery store, to a gas station; it doesn’t matter.”

Related story and slide show: A Teacher’s Hands-On Life Helping Others

ALS class at VCU.jpg

By the Numbers

In 2002, about 1 million Americans over age 5 were classified as functionally deaf.

More than 8 million Americans over age 5 were hard of hearing, meaning they had difficulty hearing conversations even with a hearing aid. (More than half these individuals were 65 or older.)

There are more than 100 deaf schools in America. New York has the most of any state.

About 40 states have laws recognizing American Sign Language as a foreign language.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Gallaudet University, Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center

CNS reporter Kayla Wamsley created this Google Map showing which colleges and universities in Virginia already accept American Sign Language for foreign language credit and which don’t. Here’s the legend:

  • Yellow dot: a public institution that already accepts ASL
  • Red: a public institution that didn’t accept ASL before the new law
  • Purple: a private institution that already accepts ASL
  • Green: a private institution that didn’t accept ASL before the new law

View ASL in Virginia in a larger map