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August 13, 2005

Deaf advocates say law is good sign

From: Columbia Daily Tribune, MO - Aug 13, 2005

Schools to treat ASL as language.

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) - Ashley Shaw's best friend is deaf, so she started to learn sign language to communicate better with her.

That initial, informal learning led her on the path to a career.

The King City School District she attended offered no sign language course, so her first formal education came at William Woods University in Fulton. She's starting her junior year there in the interpreter training program, the only place to earn a four-year interpreting degree in Missouri.

Shaw said a state law taking effect later this month should encourage more schools to offer opportunities to learn sign language.

"There's not really that awareness that it is an actual language, and I think it's great they're giving it that status," she said.

The law requires schools to accept an American Sign Language course as a foreign language credit, just as Spanish or French. The bill passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly.

Just five school districts in Missouri offered a sign language course last school year, with less than 300 students enrolled. But backers hope the law will change that in the future. They also say it's especially important that the law also makes sign language count as meeting a foreign language requirement for entrance into public colleges or universities.

Barbara Garrison, superintendent of the Missouri School for the Deaf, said the bill will benefit both those who are deaf and hear.

"More and more of us folks that can hear will take ASL," she said. "That will be a benefit both to individuals learning to communicate in ASL and to members of the deaf community that will have more of their hearing peers that can communicate with them."

She said people with a deaf member in the family also stand to gain.

"There'll be more sign language classes set up throughout the state," Garrison said. "I hear it every year, parents saying 'I want to be able to communicate with my child more, but there aren't any sign language classes in my area.' "

At William Woods, instructor Carrie McCray said she hopes the new law will expose more youngsters to sign language and maybe entice some into becoming interpreters, as she did.

"We're in a shortage of interpreters," she said. "There's never enough."

McCray said even students who take just one or two classes will pick up enough to interact with a deaf person.

"To have that ability to sign a little bit is a great personal benefit," she said. "You take French or German or Spanish, but how often are you going to use that in real life? The chances are greater you'll run into a deaf individual than someone who speaks German. This is a language you can learn and apply," McCray said.

The School for the Deaf is expected to offer advice and assistance to schools and colleges wanting to start sign language classes.

Garrison envisions making use of distance learning. She said perhaps parents in a rural area, or any other lacking a sign language class, could visit their local school district, if it's equipped with the right technology, and tap in to classes taught by School for the Deaf instructors. School districts wanting to offer the class but lacking teachers also could work with the School for the Deaf, she said.

The Blue Springs School District in suburban Kansas City is among the few that offer sign language and has for several years.

"It was a great opportunity because it was a way for our kids to communicate with each other," spokeswoman Leslie Evans said.

She said the course has been offered as an elective, but if colleges accept it as a foreign language, she expects even more students to try it.

The University of Missouri-Columbia offers a sign language course, and thanks to the law, it will start being offered as a 5-credit, rather than a 3-credit, course structured like other foreign languages, instructor Stephanie Logan said.

Logan lost her hearing to spinal meningitis 14 years ago and now works to advocate for the deaf. She hopes the university can eventually offer an entire deaf studies program.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2005 The Columbia Daily Tribune. All Rights Reserved.