In order to fulfill the foreign language requirement for my degree, I was planning on taking some courses in American Sign Language. My local community college back home offered it, but it never fit into my schedule, so I assumed I’d be able to put it off until I got to NC State. Imagine my surprise when I’m browsing the course catalog and find no trace of an ASL class.
Upon reaching out to some faculty members in the foreign language department, I discovered that not only does NC State not offer any ASL courses, but they never have. Many other major North Carolina universities and even community colleges offer ASL courses and degrees, including but not limited to UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, Elon, App State and more. They will, however, accept ASL credits from other institutions to fulfill the degree requirements. Still, with a comprehensive foreign language department that staffs dozens of faculty members and offers numerous languages, it’s astounding that ASL is not an option.
Around 11.5 million Americans suffer some form of hearing loss, including a population of over 1 million North Carolinians with hearing loss. Not all individuals with hearing loss use sign language, with only 500,000 Americans and Canadians reporting ASL as their first language. This number does not include deaf or hearing individuals who learn ASL as a second language, making the total number of ASL users much higher.
Offering quality, accessible sign language education provides countless benefits to individuals within and outside the deaf community. It facilitates communication among individuals with wide ranges of hearing abilities and impairments. It can aid in conversation between hearing people as well. Sign language can be used to talk in a loud room, library or any other setting where spoken language may be difficult or inconvenient. There have even been studies showing that the early use of sign language with a child can improve their communication skills and vocabulary.
Additionally, practical communication aside, wider spread ASL proficiency would help integrate deaf or hard-of-hearing students into our culture and, conversely, give hearing individuals a better understanding of deaf culture. There are countless stories of deaf individuals being pleasantly surprised by their companions learning sign language — including that of Muharrem Yazgan, whose neighbors all learned the language to make him feel supported.
Instances like this don’t need to be a special case. Easier accessibility to ASL classes would allow any student to offer a moment of understanding and compassion like this to a deaf student who may not otherwise be able to easily communicate with their peers.
Interest in sign language stretches from a global perspective all the way to our very own campus. A 2017 resolution by the United Nations that declared Sept. 23 as the International Day of Sign Languages stated, “that early access to sign language and services in sign language, including quality education available in sign language, is vital to the growth and development of the deaf individual.” This illustrates the recent large-scale attention that has been given to improving ASL education and generally improving the lives of hearing-impaired individuals. On a smaller scale, the existence of NC State’s American Sign Language Club proves that NC State students have an interest in learning ASL and likely would take the class if it was offered.
NC State prides itself on diversity, inclusion and community. The addition of American Sign Language to the other languages offered already would be a clear and impactful step towards increased inclusion of hard-of-hearing students into our community. Student interest in the course and the benefits it would create are apparent. NC State should start offering ASL for the 2023-24 academic year.