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The push for ASL education is a good sign

UTSC's sign language course should be generalized to all of U of T
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If you’re looking to take a language course at U of T, you have over 40 options — including Aramaic, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and Ancient Greek. But despite being an institution that promises “boundless” education, U of T does not currently offer an American Sign Language (ASL) course at its St. George and Mississauga campuses — and that needs to change.

Thankfully, there is already a push to introduce ASL courses at UTSG. The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) has been working on an ASL course proposal since July, based on the recommendation of Michael Junior Samakayi, a Deaf student and founder of the U of T ASL Club. Since then, ASSU has worked with University of Toronto Students’ Union Vice-President University Affairs Josh Grondin, the Society for Linguistics Undergraduate Students, and the Equity Studies Students’ Union to develop the project.

When Samakayi and I first met, I had no knowledge of sign language. After he taught me how to finger spell my name and some basic signs, I was determined to learn more on my own.

Some internet research informed me that ASL is not simply English translated into individual signs, but a complex and vibrant language with its own grammar structure. I knew I needed to take a course to at least properly understand the language, let alone become proficient in it, but there was no course for me to take to do so.

Of course, the importance of an ASL course at U of T is far greater than for satiating my personal interest, but I’m not the only one with this interest. Samakayi told me via email that he was inspired to push for ASL courses at U of T because most of the people to whom he teaches sign language are eager to learn more, but are not given the opportunity.

U of T students want to learn sign language. This is indicated by the interest in the ASL club founded by Samakayi, which has over 500 likes on Facebook. Despite such eagerness, U of T is lagging behind other Canadian universities, including Ryerson University, York University, Carleton University, and the University of British Columbia when it comes to offering ASL courses.

UTSC introduced an ASL course to its linguistics department in 2007, led by Professor Rena Helms-Park. She told me over email that all the positive feedback she has received on the course and the number of students “waiting anxiously” to get in makes her confident that the ASL course offered at UTSC has “incalculable value” to the students.

She expanded on the professional opportunities that the course has offered students, including being “the first step towards getting professional qualifications in audiology or speech pathology,” as well as obtaining volunteer positions in hospitals, clinics, and schools.

“One of our graduates, Ricky Chow, is now at Sunnybrook Hospital conducting research on cochlear implants, especially in connection with hearing Cantonese tones,” said Helms-Park. She added that “in many other situations, the ASL course is one of the repertoire of courses that count as relevant for admission to various programs in the rehabilitative sciences.”

Students from UTSG and UTM are missing out on these opportunities without an ASL course on their calendars. As Samakayi pointed out, any U of T graduate who works with the public would benefit from ASL courses, as they “will eventually encounter a Deaf person who uses ASL.”

While universities offer students unique access to languages and cultures that are otherwise marginalized by mainstream society, they also serve as the arbiters of which cultures are considered worthy of study and which are not.

When universities fail to offer sign language classes, they inadvertently contribute to a system that undervalues and ultimately erases Deaf culture. In turn, this perpetuates widespread ignorance that has, for too long, resulted in the mistreatment of Deaf people. The Canadian Association of the Deaf believes that the human rights of Deaf people are violated in Canada because of “systemic discrimination, inappropriate priorities, and simple ignorance.”

Deaf culture encapsulates much more than just ASL, but learning sign language is deemed as a necessary first step toward breaking down the barriers between Deaf and hearing students. According to ASSU executive Joshua Bowman, a recognized ASL course at U of T would allow students to “build bridges where there are currently walls.”

Samakayi agreed, as “sign language helps to bridge the gap between the Deaf community and hearing community.” He added that, as a Deaf student at a hearing university, when other students “know some basic ASL, it makes [him] feel the sense of [belonging] to the University student life.”

Ultimately, introducing a sign language course would put substantive backing behind the university’s promise of accessibility. “It’s not enough to throw the word accessibility onto a button,” said Bowman. “Our university needs to throw their support behind American Sign Language and accessibility as a whole.”

By giving students at all three campuses an opportunity to learn sign language, U of T can provide students with the tools to create a more accessible campus and world. For example, with the introduction of ASL to UTSC, a group of graduates created the organization Hear2Speak to improve accessibility in developing countries, as well as in Canada.

The chances of ASL being introduced at UTSG look promising. In the beginning of October, ASSU met with Dean of Arts and Science David Cameron and the Faculty of Arts & Science administration to introduce the course proposal and receive input. According to Bowman, the feedback from the dean was positive and the administration is now assisting in the process of collecting information.

In the meantime, Samakayi suggests liking the U of T ASL Club on Facebook to learn more about sign language, because “it’s important we keep the culture alive until the University recognizes it as a credit.”

The development of an ASL course proposal is progress in itself. Accessibility remains an issue on campus, but students working together to create meaningful solutions is certainly a good sign.

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.