Student petitions EMU to teach sign language

Between 500,000 and 2,000,000 use American Sign Language, according to a study from the Gallaudet University, a private university that specializes in teaching the deaf. Despite teaching a variety of foreign languages and having a well-respected special education program with a hearing impairment program, EMU does not currently teach any ASL courses.

But one student seeks to change that soon.

Ashlee Lewis, a junior social work major, started a petition to bring ASL classes to EMU. Together with fellow social work student Thereza Amador, she collected the signatures of nearly 150 students and staff.

“I knew I needed to take action and make others aware that by not offering ASL classes, the university was denying students their right to an education of an under-represented minority group in America,” Lewis said.

Lewis became passionate about ASL at an early age.

“My grandfather was born deaf and he sparked an interest in me learning the language very on,” Lewis said. “Watching him communicate with his sister and deaf friends in his native language, ASL, was just so beautiful. It definitely had a profound effect on me.”

The idea for the petition came about while Lewis was in Lansing for the National Association of Social Workers’ Legislative, Education and Advocacy Day. Several breakout sessions were conducted to inspire and educate social work students. The first session Lewis attended was about the health disparities and injustices faced by the deaf community.

“Basically a lot of [the injustices] came from people not knowing and understanding the language or deaf culture,” Lewis said. “I had always wanted to take a formal ASL class in college but being that Eastern did not offer any to general students, I didn’t really see that as an option.”

EMU’s neighbor, Washtenaw Community College, offers a course in ASL. Down the street in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan boasts an entire five-course program focusing on ASL, as well as deaf culture. A 2010 article in The New York Times said that enrollment in college ASL courses jumped by more than 16 percent between the years of 2006 and 2009. As of that article’s publication, ASL was the fourth most-studied language on college campuses.

At one point, EMU did have an intro class for ASL and similar communication methods. SPHI 375, or Fundamentals of Sign Communication, was a two credit hour course described as a “study of the rationale for use of manual communication systems with persons with hearing impairments, including American Sign Language, manually-coded English Sign systems and fingerspelling” in the archived EMU course catalog. The last time this course was taught, however, was in the winter 2011 semester. Also, special education majors had the option of specializing in hearing impairment, according to the archived catalog. In the 2013-2014 undergraduate catalog, the option is not listed.

Lewis hopes EMU will begin offering courses related to deafness in the near future, but she realizes that any major action will take time.

“If EMU decides to offer any basic ASL to its general students, then this petition will have been worth it,” Lewis said. “U of M offers many classes relating to ASL and deaf culture. It is my hopes one day Eastern will follow suit and offer the same opportunities to its students.”

Lewis submitted the petition and a persuasive letter to EMU President Susan Martin on Feb. 11. As of publication, she has not received a response.


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