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OPINION: ASL should be offered as a foreign language class

By Emma Hirschauer

If you’ve ever been to a foreign country you’ll know the feeling of not being understood. This is the reality that many deaf or hard of hearing people live with on a daily basis. But just like any foreign language, there is a very simple way to bridge this gap: introducing American Sign Language as a language class in schools.

Lead With Languages is an organization that promotes the teaching of new languages for children and young adults. In an article regarding American Sign Language, they say, “there are approximately 250,000 – 500,000 ASL users in the United States and Canada, most of whom use ASL as their primary language.” 

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people inhabit a large space in society and offer a special perspective that hearing people may not understand. ASL is an important part of making those stories more known and giving deaf and HOH (hard of hearing) people a voice to represent themselves. Learning ASL is a gateway into learning about the culture and issues that the deaf community faces, and can offer a new and rich worldview to hearing people who learn the language.

In addition, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders says that “about 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.” This poses another question: how should the struggles that deaf and HOH children face be treated in schools?

Many schools have already come up with answers on the academic side, but this leaves deaf and HOH children on their own when it comes to the social aspects of navigating the educational system. For many, this experience can be an isolating one, but one that could be fixed with the introduction of an ASL class. A class like this would allow for deaf and HOH students to teach their classmates more effective ways of communication. As a result understanding and acceptance can be fostered in the hearing students. This will result in better social opportunities for deaf and HOH students and a widened worldview and set of skills for hearing students. 

Another facet of ASL as a language class is its recognition as a foreign language in high schools. 45 states currently have such legislation written surrounding the topic, Illinois included. Still, having it as a class is not common, which is in part due to the shortage of ASL-certified teachers. As a solution, schools could try using this position as an opportunity for deaf and HOH ASL users that may have been otherwise left behind in the search for jobs, while also making the position available for hearing teachers willing to learn or who already know ASL.

People who find themselves opposed to this idea may feel like they don’t know any deaf or HOH people whom this will actually help, but the CDC reports that “14.9% of children 6-19 years of age experience low- or high-frequency hearing loss of at least 16-decibel hearing level in one or both ears.” This shows how deafness and hearing loss is an issue that affects so many school-age children in our society. Programs that have ASL as an accessible option will truly make a positive difference in so many lives. A system like this would also be fairly easy to implement, though as stated in the paragraph above it may be a struggle to staff such a position.

ASL is a language like no other, and teaching it would open so many doors for deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people alike. If a program like this becomes widespread enough it has the potential to change the culture surrounding ASL as a whole, and make society so much more accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people everywhere.

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