The ability to go to a museum and enjoy the exhibits, being able to walk into an emergency room and explain an illness or injury, going to a movie for pleasure, the safety net of an emergency phone in an elevator — these are all things most people are able to do with ease, and often take for granted.
But for members of the deaf community, these activities represent obstacles that can be difficult to overcome, especially when the community lacks the resources to compensate.
The lack of equal opportunities for deaf people in Waco was first brought to the Lariat’s attention in January when we learned the Mayborn Museum Complex did not offer accommodations for deaf visitors. When visiting the museum, the deaf cannot fully appreciate the exhibits because much of the information is in the accompanying audio.
After researching, the Lariat stumbled across many other ways the deaf community is lacking equality at Baylor and in Waco — excluding them from daily pleasures and forcing them to face hardships.
The stress of having to take a trip to the emergency room, which is great in and of itself, is only amplified when it is difficult to communicate. The inability to describe symptoms or ask questions increases the likelihood for miscommunication.
The Waco movie theaters don’t offer show times with closed captioning, making it impossible for a deaf person to go to a movie with family or friends and understand it. The concern that an elevator could break down becomes a real issue for a deaf person who cannot communicate there is a problem without the proper technology.
Even more than being left out of the community — or perhaps because of it — the deaf are misunderstood and the culture is underappreciated. The fact that American Sign Language (ASL) cannot count toward the language credit at Baylor is a prime example.
Even though ASL is a language distinct from English, the College of Arts and Sciences does not allow ASL to count for the foreign language credit because, according to associate dean of humanities and professor of Spanish Dr. Frieda Blackwell, Baylor expects students to be able to participate globally and wants students to learn about another culture.
This reasoning is seriously flawed.
First, ASL is a foreign language, and is even recognized as such by universities around the country.
Even though there has not been a truly reliable survey done on the number of people in the United States who speak ASL as their first language (another testament to how this culture is not represented), estimates are at about 2 million people, according to B. Scheck, the author of the “Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education.”
ASL should not be disqualified as a foreign language simply because it was developed in the United States and Canada for many reasons. Other languages that originated in America, such as the Native American languages, are still considered foreign. ASL has its own grammatical system, a writing system and has its roots in French Sign Language. ASL is not a simplified version of English, but an independent, complex language.
ASL is also used in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar and Zimbabwe.
Deaf culture is also distinct from any other culture.
Deaf people have an identity separate from mainstream American culture and often identify with being deaf over being an American. They have their own literature, their own traditions. They have a different perspective on activities and life, especially because their world is so visual. Deaf culture has its own distinctive history and deaf arts.
As for wanting to students to be able communicate globally, valuing the ability to communicate with foreigners over an ability to communicate with other Americans is a tragic misplacement of what is important. This policy sends the message to the deaf community that Baylor, and many other colleges and schools, believes it is more important to communicate with foreigners than fellow Americans. It sends the message to students that ASL is not an important language, that it is not worth learning, and that the deaf community is not worthy of trying to understand.
In addition, the majority of students who simply complete their requisite four semesters of a foreign language are only learning enough to stumble through a very basic conversation. And, unless they took Spanish, they won’t be exposed to this language on a regular basis. Most of students will lose even their elemental knowledge in a matter of a year or two, and will probably never use it again in their life.
However, if students were to complete four semesters of ASL as a foreign language credit, they could easily make use of their capabilities and in every area of the United States. Even the elemental understanding of ASL students would receive in four semesters of classes would be enough to communicate with an entire group of our society that is greatly left out of daily communication.
That is not to say that progress is not in the making. Since the Lariat’s investigation began, Dr. Ellie Caston, director of the Mayborn Museum, has been in contact with Dr. Lewis Lummer, lecturer of communication sciences and disorders at Baylor, to find resources for the deaf and make the Mayborn more accessible.
The Starplex Galaxy 16 movie theater in Waco told the Lariat it is looking into opportunities to make the theater more open to the deaf community.
Providence Hospital in Waco has taken steps to communicate with deaf members of the community by hiring an independent certified language interpreting service to assist when needed. However, in emergency situations the hospital staff falls back to communicating with basic hand motions, as it does not have a certified translator on staff.
It is clear that there is not enough available in Waco for the deaf community, either on or off Baylor’s campus. The lack of understanding of deaf culture, the lack of a desire to ensure deaf people are included in society and the inadequate resources available are all shocking problems that need to be addressed. Leaders in the Waco community need to make an active effort to incorporate the deaf community. Baylor needs to take a stand on the importance of ASL. And individual members of society need make an effort to understand and interact with deaf culture.