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Read more about Brown's decision to dismantle its ASL program -- from the the campus newspaper the Brown Daily Herald.

Boston University students can fulfill their foreign language requirement by studying ASL. MORE.



May 30, 2005 -- Brown University's Academic Priorities Committee and its College Curriculum Council have decided to re-instate American Sign Language at Brown University. "We fought the fight," says Brown University student activist Willa Mamet in an e-mail.

There were shock-blue Tshirts ("ASL: It's in Our Hands") and buttons ("Celebrate Diversity -- SAVE ASL") and hundreds of letters from around the world. People threatened their alumnae donations. People threatened their enrollment. And people pleaded: Do not end this ASL program. It means so much to us.

And in a surprise move, Brown University's administration listened. They read your letters. They saw the support. And they changed their decision.

As of September 2005, Brown will have an improved, fully-funded ASL program with a full-time faculty member. This is no -- YET -- a Deaf Studies program, but rather a series of classes focused on building fluency in ASL. But we have to start somewhere, and with strong roots, growth is always possible.

Our motto: "We can. We will." And we did.

For everyone who helped: a thousand thanks.

In late April, school administrators began to re-consider the decision to drop the program, after e-mails and letters flooded in. STORY from Brown Daily Herald.

Prestigious Brown University is 'phasing out' its 10-year-old American Sign Language program. Cal Montgomery looks at what's behind the administration's decision -- and its implications for all of us.

In related articles, Brown students Willa Mamet and Adee Thal, who are leading the drive to reinstate the program, explain what having ASL at Brown means to them.

ASL, the University, and The Wider Community

By Cal Montgomery

Adee Thal, Willa Mamet, and Eric Tong are asking people to let Brown University know that canceling its American Sign Language (ASL) program is a bad thing.

I fight to save ASL at Brown not only to protect ASL's future, but to protect my past.
Read Adee Thal's article.

The actions taken by the APC show its members' ignorance of the importance of ASL in the world and at Brown. So we have made it our duty to educate them.
Read Willa Mamet's article.

In an article for Ragged Edge, Mamet writes that Brown ("an example to the world of progressive educational practices") has been "on the forefront of ASL education since 1995" and its decision to "backpedal" now "is simply bad form." Thal writes that it's "bittersweet to agree so strongly with the philosophy of a university -- with its 'new curriculum' liberal mindedness, commitment to diversity and strong undergraduate program -- that will not support the thing that means most to me: ASL."

When I phoned Brown to talk about the ASL program, I was told to talk to Beth Bauer from Hispanic Studies, who is also the director of the Center for Language Studies (CLS). She could tell me what was happening.

Students had been studying ASL at Brown by taking group independent study courses; in 2000, Bauer told me, "a very low-budget proposal to offer for-credit ASL courses on a regular basis" was approved.

James Lipsky has been serving as the Coordinator of ASL instruction; this is a part-time job.

Since taking charge of the CLS, says Bauer, "I have been concerned about quality and equity issues and have advocated improvements to the program."

But Lennard Davis, who was one of the people who publicized the Brown students' call to action, said the university looked at the ASL programs in place at other, similar, schools and decided that the program should have a full-time, rather than part-time, coordinator, and more courses. Davis teaches in the disability studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His books include Bending Over Backwards: Essays on Disability and the Body and My Sense of Silence: Memoirs of a Childhood With Deafness . He said that a fulltime coordinator and more courses would have taken more money.

Brown's Academic Priorities Committee (APC), said Davis, decided that "the university needed to streamline, that the program did not fulfill requirements in a concentration, did not contribute to graduate education or research, [and] did not aid in travel or the global economy."

So the APC did not recommend spending more money to bring the ASL program up to the standards they thought it ought to meet -- standards that might have enabled it to do all those things the Committee noted that it does do now -- and not to leave it to continue in its less-than-ideal state, but to cut some classes and make the ones that are left non-credit.

I referred to these changes as the "dismantling" of the ASL program. Bauer was quick to correct me: the APC wasn't dismantling anything, but had decided to "[phase] out ASL as a for-credit option .... Starting with the fall semester of 2005, first-year ASL instruction was to be moved to the School of Continuing Education, where it would be offered for both Brown students and Rhode Island community members as a non-credit option."

But according to Thal, Mamet and Tong, that's not good enough.

I know nothing of the New Curriculum and I haven't profited from Brown's example with respect to progressive educational practices.

What does the status of ASL at Brown tell us about the ebb and flow of disability rights? What effect might ASL programs have on the larger society, and indirectly on our own lives?

All the same, I can understand that anyone who chooses to apply to Brown, and then to go there, and then to stay (or return) there probably has as many good things to say about her school as I have to say about mine -- Rose Bowl champions, y'all! -- and I can understand why Thal and Mamet stress the importance of this cancellation at their school in particular.

I'm coming from a different perspective: For those of us with no ties to Brown and no plans or hopes or dreams to enroll any time soon, it's still worth considering what the status of ASL at Brown tells us about the ebb and flow of disability rights. It's worth considering what effect ASL programs of which we never expect to take advantage can have on the larger society, and indirectly on our own lives.

First, there's the effect ASL programs have on people who enroll in them. This is an issue Thal addresses in her Ragged Edge article.

Many people believe that access to a community of signers is important for the development of a deaf human being, and that an ASL program is therefore very important for deaf students. Many people also believe that access to cultures other than one's own is important for the development of any human being, and that an ASL program is therefore important for hearing and non-Deaf as well as deaf or hard-of-hearing students.

I'm betting that I have this in common with most of Brown's students: enough privilege, at least during our college years, that we can think about education as a way to develop ourselves as human beings, and not just as a ticket to a living wage.

ASL is probably not all that useful to most hearing people who just need jobs unless they're willing to train to become interpreters. Employers are much more willing to accommodate people who can't sign fluently than they are to accommodate people who can't speak fluently.

But Brown has enough money, and its students have a good enough safety net, that while the global economy is a good reason to offer some programs, it's not a good enough reason to cut others.

Second, there's the effect ASL programs have on people in the wider community. This is an issue Mamet addresses in her Ragged Edge article.

I may not be tuned in to Brown's example, but plenty of people are -- including those of Brown's graduates who go on to assume powerful positions in society. (I do my level best to disassociate myself from the school I attended from the seventh to the twelfth grade, but in my more honest moments I recognize that that school has had an impact on who I am and what I think is worth doing.)

What Brown determines is worth funding, worth teaching, worth connecting with other subjects in other disciplines, will have an effect on people who stand to have an effect on society. In particular, Brown's attitude toward ASL, as it is expressed through its willingness to develop and offer courses that take ASL seriously, will affect audiologically and culturally hearing people who might not otherwise think about audiological and cultural d/Deafness at all.

For those of us who regard the world today as something short of utopia, the practices of those schools whose graduates can expect to have an influence on that world is significant.

As we can see if we pay attention to the way Mamet and Thal talk about their school and its significance in the world, many people at Brown take its position in the world seriously at least some of the time.

So when an administrator starts talking as if it's irrelevant which subjects it offers for credit and which it simply allows students to pursue in addition to whatever else they have on their plates, I wonder about that. Would the same administrator be saying something entirely different if it were a subject she cared more about, or if we were discussing the development rather than the dismantling (yes, "dismantling") of an academic program?

Maybe. Brown may look pretty monolithic to me from my room over here in the Midwest, but universities are as full of people clamoring in disagreement as any communities anywhere. I don't know Professor Bauer's work firsthand, and I have no basis for any judgment about her as an academic or an individual.

But that doesn't we have to accept APC's stated reasons for what's happening to the ASL program at face value. Lennard Davis made the point succinctly: "If Brown had a disability studies program or a Deaf studies program, if they taught about disability on the graduate level, and if they hired people who work in disability studies ... then it would fit their agenda. In other words, if this argument were used back in the day when African-American or Latino/Latina studies were being considered, they could make the same kind of objection."

You don't have to regard ASL as a way for hearing missionaries to minister to deaf unfortunates in order to regard access to Deaf languages and cultures as something important. You don't have to regard Brown as one of the great outposts of civilization to understand that part of the way languages and cultures are recognized as important is through schools taking the position that they are important enough to teach.

In other words, a world in which Deaf languages and cultures -- and therefore the people in those linguistic and cultural communities -- are marginalized by audiocentric majorities is a world full of injustices, and we struggle against that injustice by asking , the loss of Brown's ASL program, just like the loss of any other school's ASL program, matters .

So why wouldn't Brown recognize that?

Mary Tomasian, Secretary for Rhode Island Association for the Deaf, has been teaching ASL courses for four years. "I ... really enjoy my job," she told me. "Just the idea of teaching my culture to others." Her students appear to reciprocate.

I'd heard that the ASL classes were consistently overenrolled. Was that true? Yes, she said: she prefers to teach no more than 20 students at a time, but some semesters has had 25 people in a class.

She told me she thinks that part of the problem may be that Brown administrators don't know enough about ASL.

There are reasons to take Tomasian's concerns seriously.

In a document aimed at explaining "hearing disabilities" to faculty, provided by Brown's Disability Support Services website, "Deaf" with a capital "D" is repeatedly used to mean "not hearing" as opposed to participation in Deaf culture: teachers are warned that "hearing disability may be due to conditions such as conductive hearing impairment or Deafness, sensorineural hearing impairment or Deafness," etc., and told that "some Deaf people" use cued speech (a system to provide more information about what sounds a speaker is making than can be gleaned by watching his mouth).

Brown's "New Curriculum

Prestigious Brown University began its "New Curriculum" in 1969. Students determine their own educational paths;there are no universitywide course requirements or grading; all courses can be taken on a "satisfactory/no credit" basis.

In the same document, members of the faculty are cautioned against interpreting "[g]estures and guttural sounds" as "signs of anger, belligerence, or intoxication" when really "they may be the individual's only method of nonspoken communication."

Gestures and guttural sounds? In the Chronicle article I mentioned above, Professor Goldsmith noted that ASL "is a member of a language family that includes French Sign Language, Irish Sign Language and Spanish Sign Language, but does not include, for example, British Sign Language or Chinese Sign Language," and that ASL "shares some grammatical features with Chinese, others with African languages and so on."

For that matter, "only method of nonspoken communication"? Mary Tomiasan says Brown has admitted, enrolled, provided interpreters for, and given diplomas to Deaf students before, but it's hard to believe whoever wrote that page ever met any of them.

What ignorance there is at Brown -- as elsewhere -- is almost certainly complicated.

Lennard Davis cautioned me not to "underestimate the foreign language programs' 'turfing' in a time of continued lack of resources.

"They see that ASL is a very popular language, and they fear that it will displace their predominance as well as take their full-time professor spots away. So they pull the 'you can't travel to foreign lands' objection -- as if talking to Native Americans were not a contradiction ....

"Since ASL has no established defenders, it will of course not be a priority. And also, given the biases people have, ASL will be considered a 'lesser' language and those who want to learn it will be seen as taking an 'easier' or 'fun' approach to language learning. Actually, ASL acquisition is as difficult as any other language."

He added that "students who take ASL will be seen as doing preparation for charitable work with the Deaf, rather than seen as pursuing knowledge and culture."

In 2001, the University of Chicago's Professor John Goldsmith told The University of Chicago Chronicle much the same thing about ASL's status as a language "foreign" to many hearing people. He noted that "ASL is an introduction to a cultural world that was there all along but that students [didn't] know about."

And unless the people urging administrators to reconsider phasing out the ASL program are successful, it's going to be that much harder for Brown's students to get that introduction.

Posted April 20, 2005.

Cal Montgomery writes frequently for Ragged Edge. Read her article A Hard Look at Invisible Disability.

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