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May 30, 2005 -- Brown University's Academic Priorities Committee and its College Curriculum Council have "decided to re-instate American Sign Language here at Brown as of this coming fall semester," says Mamet. MORE.

ASL: It's In Our Hands

by Willa Ives Mamet

The Brown University American Sign Language program is in peril. The administration is trying to phase it out, and students, faculty and outside supporters who consider the decision a grave mistake are rallying to the cause.

'Protecting My Past'

by Adrienne Thal

I am Deaf. In the past four years, not only have I grown academically, mentally and emotionally; but I have evolved from a hearing-impaired person, to a deaf person to, finally, a Deaf person. It was not an easy transition. It was accompanied by struggles, frustration, and tears. But it also brought self-realizations, laughter and infinite sources of happiness.

There is a bit more than a month remaining until I cross that stage and receive my diploma, concluding my undergraduate college career. Four years ago, I was faced with quite a difficult decision: Which institution of higher education would I matriculate to? It was down to two choices. Brown University in Providence, RI, or Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY.

I am a Liberal Arts student. Brown University is an Ivy League university that has a remarkably prestigious reputation. The choice should have been clear.

But National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) is housed by RIT and has a population of 1,200 Deaf students. One can only imagine the pull and appeal this would hold over a 17-year-old girl who had struggled her entire life as the only person of her hearing status within her schools, her social circles, her everything.

I remember sitting on the stairs of my house as a high school senior, breaking down in tears to my mother. Brown University had been my dream school, and I had been accepted. But instead of being thrilled and jumping at the opportunity, I was considering walking away from it all. For a world where I would be immersed in American Sign Language.

I was told that I had the world in front of me, that I had all these incredibly opportunities, that I had worked hard and earned these. So I ended up matriculating to Brown. But with the promise to myself that I would learn ASL and somehow network into a Deaf community.

After three semesters of Brown's ASL Program's courses, I made the decision to leave the University for a semester to go and complete a Domestic Study at RIT.

I had visited Rochester three times beforehand to see friends -- and each weekend visit I knew with stronger affirmation that I needed to make that life my own., rather than one I only experienced on weekends through friends. And eventually I did.

I was questioned by many people close to me as to why I would take time off to go to a less prestigious school. I merely responded that it was a calling I needed to answer for myself.

A semester became a year. A year almost became a complete transfer. I met new people every day. My signing skills grew by leaps and bounds, as did my self-esteem and confidence as a person. I could comfortably be in a world full of silence and still be aware of what was happening around me. It was one of the best years of my life.

Coming back to Brown was one of the hardest things that I have had to do. There is not a day that goes by without my contemplating the "what ifs?" had I transferred to Rochester.

My time at RIT was full of ups and downs -- which can be said about life in general -- but I still look back on it with an incredible fondness and gratitude, a warm heart and wistful smile on my face. It's like waking up from a blissful dream: sad that it is over but happy that it happened.

Four years ago this month, I was a young girl with no knowledge of ASL. With no sense of belonging within the Deaf community.

Today, I straddle two different worlds: the Deaf and the hearing. I can survive comfortably in both, but I cannot feel whole in one world without having the other nearby.

I find it 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 one of the things that means most to me: American Sign Language.

I fight to save ASL at Brown not only to protect ASL's future, but to protect my past. If the Brown administration cancels ASL, it will forever taint the memories of my experiences here.

ADRIENNE THAL, who goes by "Adee," is currently the only Deaf undergraduate student at Brown University. After graduation, she plans to travel and see Deaf cultures in other countries. And when she starts applying to graduate schools, American Sign Language is on the list of criteria!

Brown has offered ASL classes since 1995, and credit-bearing ASL classes for five years. Each semester classes are filled to capacity, with a significant waiting list. These wildly popular classes are now about to be relegated to the "Brown Learning Community," basically a continuing studies area, where classes cost extra and offer no college credit. (There are currently no Brown students enrolled in BLC classes.) The move spells death to ASL education at Brown.

The change came about as a result of a review by Brown's Academic Priorities Committee. The Center for Language Studies, a department that often houses "orphan languages,"had asked for financial help with ASL for three years before receiving a response from the university.

When the APC finally responded in the fall of 2004 and reviewed the ASL program, it concluded that the program either needed to be discarded or upgraded. An upgrade would mean hiring a full-time staff member, which would money that the University it seems does not want to invest in ASL. (Ironically, the University seems perfectly willing to accept the money that will be made off of ASL classes when they're relegated to the continuing studies area.)

But students, lead by Adrienne "Adee" Thal ('05), Eric Tong ('05), and myself ('04.5), are speaking out and signing up to protest the University's plan. A letter-writing campaign is underway, successful in large part due to the inspiring leadership of Lennard Davis. Students, faculty, and ASL-supporters from all over the world are writing their concerns to the Provost, the President, and the Dean of the College.

The actions taken by the APC show its members' ignorance - rather than neglect - of the importance of ASL in the world and at Brown. So we have made it our duty to educate them. In the process, we are not only making our concerns known, but also galvanizing a pro-ASL community. We continue to fight, peacefully and pro-actively, toward the reinstatement of the full course of ASL classes to Brown's curriculum.

Keeping ASL at Brown is an issue of access, of disability awareness, of Deafness and of diversity. If Brown purports to be a bastion of diverse and liberal-minded education, then they need to "walk the walk": they need to support programs that foster all kinds of diversity at Brown.

Brown has been on the forefront of ASL education since 1995. There has been a more than four-fold increase in ASL classes offered at the university level since 1998, according to the Modern Language Association. To step back from a position of leadership in this field would simply be bad form. Why would Brown, an example to the world of progressive educational practices, want to backpedal?

Brown makes a big to-do about its students being citizens of Rhode Island, of entering the Providence community, rather than being holed up in a castle on "The Hill". Providence has a large Deaf population, so, even forgetting the chances for community service (a high priority at Brown), the chances of running into someone who communicates using ASL are very high. If we lose our ASL program, there will be far fewer people who can navigate the hearing and Deaf worlds at Brown and in Providence. Cutting the ASL programs would only serve to sever the Brown community further from its surroundings.

Brown has an opportunity to make the right choice: to keep our ASL classes, stay connected with that many more people in the wider community, have a program that attracts people from all disciplines (anthropology, linguistics, public health, medicine, cognitive science, sociology), and work our way to the top of the list in terms of diversity. According to many faculty who have already written in support of ASL, Brown would do well to work a little harder on actually making strides toward a more diverse curriculum and student population.

At a meeting of Brown's Undergraduate Council of Students on April 13, President Ruth Simmons presented the school's priorities, for which funds will be sought during a new fundraising campaign. The school hopes to raise $1.3 billion dollars and hire 100 new professors, said Simmons. Set against the backdrop of this proposed expansion, the ASL program's impending death-sentence is particularly upsetting. To acquire one tenured faculty member, the ASL program would need $1 million. No one will notice the difference between a $35 million cafeteria and a $34 million one. But the community will certainly notice if American Sign Language disappears from campus.

Keeping the ASL program is not a hard choice to make financially or philosophically. Hiring one faculty member now will be a lot cheaper than trying to reinstate a full and healthy ASL program a few years down the line, once the other Ivies have done the same and Brown is scrambling to save face.

Education is cheaper than ignorance and Brown cannot afford to lose ASL.

WILLA IVES MAMET graduated from Brown University in December, 2004 with a degree in Deaf Studies. She currently "pursues beauty in the form of photography and pro-ASL activism."

Articles posted April 20, 2005.

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