Baylor sign language policy sparks class credit debate

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on issues in the deaf community.
Read “Museum urged to accommodate deaf”.
Read “Deaf fight for access, equality”.

Matt Hellman | Lariat Photographer
Garland junior Analynn Serrano, center, carries on a conversation by sign language with Waco resident and Texas State Technical College ASL interpreter Allen Arrington and Waco resident Jessica Arrington during the ASL lunch Tuesday at the McAlister’s Deli on Sixth Street.

By Sara Tirrito
Staff Writer

San Antonio junior Cheniese Armstrong wants to be an early childhood interventionist for deaf children — a worker in a Texas program, Early Childhood Intervention Services, that helps provide services for infants and children who have developmental delays or disabilities.

But like many students who might have immediate applications for American Sign Language in their lives at present or in their future careers, Armstrong can’t take ASL for her foreign language credit.

Baylor policy says the language does not meet that requirement, despite the fact that it is a language distinct from English. Only if students are majoring in the communication sciences and disorders deaf education program can they petition to have ASL count as their foreign language credit, said Joyce Miller, director of academic advisement.

Because Armstrong began her studies in the communication sciences and disorders department and had taken four semesters of ASL when she switched majors to child and family studies, she was only able to receive two semesters’ worth of foreign language credit.

Baylor policy in the College of Arts and Sciences is that students in such situations can usually receive foreign language credit for half of the ASL hours they have completed, said associate dean of humanities and professor of Spanish Dr. Frieda Blackwell.

To earn the rest of her credit, Armstrong had to begin studying a language that Baylor considers a modern foreign language, even though that language will not be as closely related to her future career.

“My major doesn’t have ‘deaf’ in the title, but I’m still going into a deaf-related field. I want to be an ECI for deaf children, so I’m still going to be very closely related with the people, with the culture, with the language,” Armstrong said. “Spanish is going to be of no help to me and I just didn’t understand the correlation with that. I’m not going to Mexico; I’m going to stay in the U.S. and use ASL, so I didn’t understand why that couldn’t be made an exception.”

Armstrong is not the first to question the policy regarding foreign language credit, which Blackwell said she has heard numerous complaints about in past years.

Blackwell said the policy stems from a desire to comply with the university’s mission statement, which says that the university’s goal “is to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community.”

“If you read the first line of the mission statement, it talks about preparing students for worldwide leadership and service,” Blackwell said. “So we feel like if we don’t get you out of American English and American culture, we haven’t done that very well.”

Although she said she believes ASL is important and useful, Blackwell said studying the language does not meet the same educational objectives or give students the global perspective they get from studying what Baylor considers a modern foreign language. She said that is because deaf Americans participate in many of the same aspects of American culture that hearing Americans do, including going to the same schools, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes and watching the same movies.

Blackwell said she also doesn’t believe deaf Americans or their language should be labeled as foreign.

“If you call American Sign Language foreign, then you said those people that use it are not Americans. They’re somebody different; they’re somebody other and obviously over the last 20, 30, 40 years, the deaf community has worked very hard to become mainstreamed in a lot of ways,” Blackwell said. “So that doesn’t sound very nice to me to say ‘Oh they’re foreign, they’re other, they’re not one of us.’”

Armstrong said she disagrees with the idea that labeling ASL as a foreign language could be offensive to members of the deaf community.

“I feel like that’s just a lack of knowledge because deaf people themselves identify themselves as different — like they are first deaf, and then they are American,” Armstrong said. “So I just think that that comes down to awareness of deaf culture and deaf views. It’s just a lack of knowledge really.”

She said she also sees Baylor’s stance on ASL as a refusal to acknowledge that deaf culture is separate from American culture.

“There’s so many things beyond just the language with deaf people that you have to learn — it is truly a culture in itself and Baylor doesn’t acknowledge that,” Armstrong said. “They’re just saying ‘Oh well, that’s the language they use because they can’t hear,’ but it’s like ‘no, not really.’ They’ve created their own culture; they’ve created their own identity in that.”

Dr. Heidi Bostic, chair and professor of modern foreign languages, said she is aware that deaf culture is a culture of its own and that ASL is a language separate from English, but that she believes students need to learn a language that is spoken outside of the United States.

“I recognize that ASL is another language, I recognize that deaf culture is a real culture, and respect that,” Bostic said. “Given the fact that we want to prepare students to learn other languages that they can take with them around the world, I think it’s important for every Baylor student to study a foreign language or a world language in that sense.”

Some students, like Houston junior Ally Roberts, who is a communication sciences and disorders/deaf education major, believe that the language and culture taught in ASL and deaf studies courses at Baylor do apply in a worldwide sense.

“We’ve been given opportunities to go to Honduras and learn Honduran Sign Language. I had a friend given an opportunity to go to China and teach American Sign Language to Chinese kids,” Roberts said. “In the deaf culture, they can expose you to the world of different sign language. We learn about that — deaf studies is not just deaf studies for America. It is, but it’s [also] about the world.”

Roberts said she does not believe ASL should be available as a foreign language credit to all students just because they don’t want to take a language like Spanish or French, but that it should be able to fill the requirement for those who have a legitimate reason for taking it.

“It should be people that are associated with the deaf community, people that focus within the deaf community like ECI, people that want to be interpreters and they want to work in a nursing setting where they know that there will be deaf patients,” Roberts said. “That’s what they need in this program.”

Baylor’s policy could also prevent the program from attracting members of the deaf community to study at Baylor, Roberts said.

“It’s something that needs to be changed because if they don’t accept it … you’re not going to pull the deaf community, and even though we’re not funded by the state, there’s such good recognition in the deaf community for Baylor,” Roberts said. “Baylor’s a good school in the deaf community, but if we can’t provide anything, if we can’t think about it as a culture, then deaf people aren’t going to come here. It’s just not going to happen.”