Special Education

Sign of the Times

By Richard Seven — November 01, 2003 9 min read
Advocates for the deaf argue that public schools should let students’ fingers do the talking.

Thursday morning announcements drone over the loudspeaker at Decatur High School in Washington state: a car wash fund-raiser ... extra-credit opportunities ... assembly on Friday. Most of the kids in Ron Podmore’s second-period class pay casual attention, but two girls in a far row are chatting up a storm.

Podmore lets them prattle—they’re not disturbing anyone. In fact, they’re applying their class lessons to life. The girls, students in his second-year American Sign Language class at this suburban school about 20 miles south of Seattle, are conversing in ASL, complete with emphatic facial gestures, nods, and finger spelling. The class, which covers the history and culture of deaf people as well as their language, is one of five ASL courses, all taught by Podmore, that students may take for foreign language credit at Decatur High.

The moment the announcements finish, the two girls shift to the spoken word. Other students begin chattering, too. The teacher, a young-looking 35-year-old, lets them go for 10 seconds, then holds his right arm and fist straight in the air, his own shorthand way of commanding attention. The students’ voices disappear in waves until the room is quiet.

Growing up in Chehalis, a small town between Seattle and Portland, Oregon, Podmore was the only deaf person in his family and one of just three non-hearing students in his high school. With a hearing aid and lip reading, he could communicate without a translator, and he considered his deafness a medical condition to overcome. Then, during his junior year at Western Washington University in Bellingham, he caught a TV news report on protests by students at Gallaudet University, a liberal arts college for the deaf in Washington, D.C. The group was demanding that the school hire its first deaf president, and for the first time Podmore felt a sense of identity tied to his deafness. “This drove home the point to me that my hearing loss did not have to be a barrier to what I could accomplish in life,” he recalls. “Rather, it became a mechanism with which I could learn more about myself.”

Podmore decided to spend a semester at Gallaudet to explore his deaf identity. Everyone at the school used sign language, and he quickly realized that it was a cornerstone of a distinct culture. “Communicating through American Sign Language is different than communicating via spoken language,” he explains, “because there is a poetic intimacy in being able to freely communicate your thoughts and be wholly understood from the inside.” He returned to Western Washington fluent in ASL and has since become an advocate for spreading the language.

If the teacher had his way, ASL courses would be as common as other foreign language offerings in high schools and enjoy greater elementary immersion. “ASL is valuable for hearing kids,” Podmore argues, “since it diminishes ignorance and fosters a bridge to communication between the hearing and the deaf.”

A growing number of educators agree. About 25 western Washington schools offer ASL instruction, up from just six a decade ago, Podmore says. Elsewhere, public schools are adding the subject in response to student demands for languages perceived to be more useful in the United States than traditional courses like French and German. Yet the same questions of culture and identity that drew Podmore to ASL also pose obstacles to making sign language courses more widely available in schools.

The primary language for between 250,000 and 500,000 deaf Americans, ASL was developed by Connecticut minister Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in the early 1800s. It’s distinct from English, other spoken languages, and sign languages used in other countries. Derived from the sign system used in France, where Gallaudet studied, ASL is akin to French, especially in its syntax. For example, ASL users say, “Store me go” instead of “I go to the store.”

Before 1990, ASL courses taught in public schools tended to be offered on an ad hoc basis. That’s what happened at Podmore’s first school in Yelm, Washington. Observing that a growing number of deaf children were enrolling at his and other area schools, Podmore’s principal decided that he wanted to expose hearing students to their classmates’ language and asked the teacher to create a signing class.

Then Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, requiring accommodations for the deaf and hard of hearing in public settings. Demand for ASL interpreters soared, in turn sparking interest in sign language classes. Today, more than 15,300 students take ASL classes in high school, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

‘If the purpose of foreign language study is to introduce students to a language and culture they do not already know ... ASL qualifies admirably.’

Sherman Wilcox,
University of New Mexico

While the number of students learning sign language has increased dramatically over the past decade, it’s still far smaller than the numbers taking nontraditional languages like Mandarin or Arabic. Advocates argue that a shortage of sign language teachers remains the primary obstacle to more courses; there are also no national standards for ASL teacher training or licensing.

The American Sign Language Teachers Association, a national organization that represents K-12 and college-level educators, is working to increase the number of ASL teachers and encourage quality through a variety of professional development programs. The organization has developed a certification program that it hopes will become a national standard; currently two states, Florida and Indiana, require ASLTA certification, and several others recommend it.

Another factor working against ASL is that relatively few colleges and universities about 140, according to Sherman Wilcox, chairman of the linguistics department at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque accept high school sign language credits to fulfill their foreign language requirements. Among those that do, policies vary considerably, with some schools accepting credits only for certain departments or majors. This limited acceptance discourages many secondary schools from finding a place for the subject in their language departments, Wilcox says.

Wilcox, an ASL advocate, argues that the reluctance of many colleges to accept the credits stems from a belief that signing does not fulfill key criteria of a foreign language, including identification with a culture, a full-fledged body of literature, and a set of linguistic components, even though more than 35 states officially recognize ASL as a language. One critic, Robert Belka, former chairman of the foreign language department at Weber State University in Utah, explained to the Orlando Sentinel last year why he disagrees with the idea that deaf Americans possess a unique culture. “I would say that an American signer has, with the exception of the handicap, the same cultural identity,” he said. “They are born into American families and eat the same kind of foods and go to the same supermarkets and schools as other Americans.”

Wilcox counters that “other indigenous languages, such as Navajo, are generally accepted in fulfillment of a foreign language requirement. If the purpose of foreign language study is to introduce students to a language and culture they do not already know—that is, a language and culture that are foreign to their experience—ASL qualifies admirably.”

Today’s assignment in Podmore’s class requires the students to break into pairs. Once they choose their partners, the kids skid their desks around to sit face to face. Incorporating some of the words the class has been learning, each student signs a sentence or thought while his or her partner draws what is being described. In ASL, facial expressions, such as raising or lowering eyebrows, and body language, like shrugs, are important parts of communicating, giving emphasis to language the same way vocal tones and inflections color spoken words. The kids are allowed to mouth words as they sign—it’s how you differentiate between similar words like “dine” and “eat"—but anyone who blurts out a word is promptly shushed by Podmore and other students.

Podmore walks up and down the aisles, peeking at the pictures and jumping into conversationsby signing when needed. His signs have a certain urgency and fluidity to them that the beginner students’ gestures lack. When Podmore announces the end of the exercise, they explode into chatter as if they had been holding their breath. “What were you telling me?” one student exclaims. “You weren’t paying attention!” yells the other.

The beauty of ASL is that it demands students’ full attention: Because it is visual, kids will get lost if they are distracted, turn their heads, or daydream.

That’s the beauty of ASL, Podmore says later—it demands students’ full attention. Because ASL is visual,he explains, kids will get lost if they are distracted, turn their heads, or daydream. Nor can they doodle or half-listen like they can in some other classes.

Not that Podmore has much of a problem with students who are easily distracted. His classes often draw kids who have personal reasons for wanting to learn sign language. Take recent Decatur graduate Jamee Martello, a serious, dark-haired 18-year-old. In kindergarten, she was mixed in with non-hearing kids as part of a school effort at inclusion. Martello fell in love with the signing she picked up from her classmates, but lost her skills after a close deaf friend moved away. When she learned that she could study ASL at Decatur, she jumpedat the chance, takingtwo years of classes with Podmore.

Martello says she now realizes that her understanding of the language was incomplete before she met the teacher. “Because he is deaf, Mr. Podmore knows the culture,” she says. “I learned that being deaf isn’t just a disability. ... He taught me to think about how people should be treated.” This fall, Martello is attending Western Oregon University, one of three higher education institutionson the West Coast that offer a four-year ASL degree, in the hopes of becoming a sign language interpreter.

Kelly Runge, another recent Decatur graduate, is deaf and learned sign language from Podmore. As a senior this past year, he served as a peer mentor and teaching assistant in one of Podmore’s courses. Runge says the classes helped him break out of his shell. “I still don’t understand a lot that goes on in the speaking world,” he says in a mechanical tone. “When I’m in a big group, it is like a light is flashing, but I’ve learned to break down information and cope. I’ve learned a lot more about myself.”

Runge is attending Western Washington University this fall, where he plans to take more ASL classes. So what does he want to do with his college degree? He smiles. “I want Mr. Podmore’s job.”

Richard Seven is a Seattle-based writer.


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