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May 12, 2007

Deaf students demand broader use of ASL

From: Belleville Intelligencer - Belleville,Ontario,Canada - May 12, 2007

Barry Ellsworth, W. Brice McVicar
Local News - Saturday, May 12, 2007 @ 10:00

About 20 students from Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf joined others around the province in demonstrations demanding better and more widespread use of American Sign Language. The marchers left Sir James Whitney about 9 a.m. Friday and proceeded to Prince Edward-Hastings MPP Ernie Parsons' office on Front Street where they left a petition requesting ASL in provincial schools.

The petition was addressed to Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne. "We implore the Ministry of Education, under your leadership, to provide, protect and promote the linguistic, academic and social development of deaf and hard of hearing children by implementing ASL (LSQ in Quebec) regulations to Bill 4, Amendment to the Education Act, 1993," the petition read.

Rallies were also staged at Queen's Park in Toronto and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

According to the Ontario Association for the Deaf, the province has been dismantling ASL programs and support services for children who have had cochlear implants. The implants are small complex electronic devices that do not restore normal hearing but can give a deaf person sounds that can lead to understanding speech.

The students found a warm welcome from Parsons who said he has introduced a bill to help address some of their concerns.

"I'm no expert on your issue, but I suspect you are aware I've introduced a Private Members' Bill to make sign language an official language," Parsons said while Dean Hardy, whose son attends Sir James Whitney, translated for the students. "I'll be blunt, it's not going to pass this session but I did it because we need to start making the public aware that there's a part of our society that does not have full access to the services they are entitled to."

Parsons told the protesters he does not believe what they are asking for is a privilege, but equality with the rest of the province.

He said this is something the deaf community should have been provided with years ago.

Parsons said he believed the protesters were "doing the right thing" because many people in the community fail to recognize the hurdles which have been placed before deaf individuals.

"I truly believe most people want to do the right thing but no one will fix a problem until they know there is a problem," Parsons said. "Change isn't going to happen next week or in the next month but I think we've started down the right road."

In Toronto, the Ontario Association of the Deaf said it won the right to have ASL and LSQ used in classrooms back in 1989, but the province still hasn't enacted the necessary regulations.

The protesters complained there are no minimum standards for teachers or interpreters for deaf students, and no curriculum using sign language to parallel the regular curriculum.

"At this point there are absolutely no minimum proficiency levels for teachers, (or) for interpreters that are working within mainstream classrooms," said OAD president Wayne Nicholson.

"So children are in a system that is not accommodating them. We need to have ASL and LSQ curriculum."

The protesters said deaf children should have exactly the same access to education as hearing children have, and complained they have been fighting for nearly two decades to get the Ministry of Education to impose standards for teachers and interpreters.

Gary Malkowski, a former NDP MPP whose daughter is hard of hearing, accused the Liberal government of trying to eliminate the use of ASL.

"I'll be very honest that this government did and continues to practice basically language cleansing. That's what we're calling it: ASL genocide," said Malkowski.

"There's no other word for it, they're trying to downsize the use of ASL, wipe it out perhaps completely. They don't want to set up regulations and enforcement that will make the schools boards set up minimum qualifications for the teachers."

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne bristled at Malkowski's comments and said the government is not trying to wipe out ASL.

"I just have to say how far from the truth that is," Wynne said in an interview.

"Even for students who are deaf or hard of hearing who have a cochlear implant, I believe that it's a good thing for them to be able to sign as well. I believe in bilingualism and I believe ASL is a language."

Wynne said the government would be implementing the regulations the deaf protesters were demanding very soon.

"We're working with George Brown College and the Canadian Hearing Society in the development of some standards for sign interpreters," she said.

"The regulations that would reinforce the position of boards to offer ASL and LSQ as language of instructions - those regulations are imminent."

The protesters marched through downtown Toronto after leaving the legislature Friday, ending at Mayfest, a deaf festival celebration at the city's St. Lawrence Market.

© 2007 Belleville Intelligencer