Signing Up for American Sign Language

Few topics have captivated the attention and passions of Columbia students like the matter of equality. Protestors have gone days without food and held faux marriage ceremonies on College Walk, but one critical issue has gone relatively unnoticed. American Sign Language (ASL) has fought an uphill battle for linguistic recognition in academic institutions, and this movement now sits at our gates. Columbia University does not currently offer ASL classes. As an academic community that has prided itself on its inclusive, non-discriminatory policies, Columbia must end this willful ignorance.

Since 2006, the Columbia Sign Language Club has been working tirelessly to give ASL the acknowledgment it deserves. For the past 10 years, CU Sign has offered free weekly classes to expose students to ASL’s linguistic and cultural complexity. Attendance at any one of these meetings would dispel many, if not all, concerns that ASL does not meet the credits of a ‘real’ foreign language. In actuality, ASL is linguistically separate from English and is accompanied by a unique cultural identity.

ASL is a legitimate language and is in no way a copy or imitative form of English. ASL’s rich grammar and syntax are independent from those of English; in fact, ASL is syntactically closer to spoken Chinese than it is to English. The Linguistic Society of America “affirms for signed languages such as ASL all the rights and privileges attendant to any spoken languages, including the right to satisfy a student’s academic foreign language requirement, just as Spanish, Chinese, Navajo, or any other spoken language can.” In addition to possessing unique linguistic qualities, ASL is tied to a rich and vibrant deaf community that has its own history, arts (e.g. theater and poetry), and customs. Two prominent examples of deaf culture include deaf literature (including deaf poetry and deaf storytelling) and regional ASL dialects, which reflect diverse cultural variants.

Not all efforts on behalf of ASL have gone unrecognized. Due to CU Sign’s extensive campaigning, in April 2008, the Barnard College Committee on Instruction approved a resolution that agreed to grant elective credit to students who have taken ASL courses. Starting in the fall of 2008, Barnard students became eligible to receive academic credit for ASL courses taken at accredited institutions. While this resolution is a mark of progress, it is a minor accomplishment that must lead the way for future initiatives. Columbia has prided itself on being at the forefront of activism in this country, yet on this matter, we are falling behind more progressive institutions. Deaf culture and ASL are popular fields of academic study at universities such as Brown, Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and New York University, all of which offer ASL for credit. In order for Columbia to maintain its status as a world-class university, we must follow the progress made by other major universities and take meaningful initiative on this growing social issue.

ASL has once again ignited the activist spirit on campus and this passion has inspired a new call for its recognition. The Activist Council of the Columbia University College Democrats has joined with CU Sign on a campaign that will bring together a wide range of organizations to approach the Columbia community through both administrative and activist routes. CU Sign and Teachers College experts on ASL have previously created an extensive syllabus for an ASL course and collected over 500 signatures on a petition to introduce Sign Language courses at Columbia—these measures have yet to bring ASL to our campus. We hope to work with the administration to set an agenda that aims not only to grant credit for past ASL courses, but also to offer ASL as a foreign language, in collaboration with ASL instructors at TC willing to offer courses to undergraduates. Even though CU Sign has been continuously employing great effort to bring ASL to campus through free ASL classes, this language and its rich culture must become readily available to all CU students.

The best support for this project can be fostered through discussion and raised awareness. For those stirred by our initiative, we urge you to contact the Activist Council (ac.cudems@gmail.com) or CU Sign (cusign@gmail.com) and express your interest, attend one of our weekly meetings (AC meets Sundays at 5:00 p.m. in 568 Lerner and CU Sign at 7:30 p.m. in Lerner’s East Ramp Lounge) and work with us on developing each step of the initiative. This is not an issue for the hearing or the deaf, but one specific injustice that we hold the power to correct.

Kaitlin Blevins is Barnard College junior and a lead activist for the Columbia University College Democrats. Marina Daskalopoulos is a Columbia College senior and the president of CU Sign. Chloe Kroeter, a member of the Barnard College Class of 2008 and former president of CU Sign, contributed to this article.

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