George Mason Law School

House Bill requires institutions to accept American Sign Language

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March 13, 2017

11:52 PM

Virginia House of Delegates Bill 1512, signed March 3 by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, will require public institutions of higher education to count credit for American Sign Language courses toward completion of the foreign language entrance, placement and credit requirements. This bill will be effective July 1, 2017.

At the College of William and Mary, credit is offered for ASL courses if they have been completed up to the equivalent of the 202 level. This credit can be used to fulfill the foreign language proficiency requirement. However, transfer credit is not granted for ASL courses taken outside the College.

We do not offer ASL,” Dean of Undergraduate Studies Janice Zeman said in an email. “If a student enters W&M with four years of ASL in high school or with the equivalent of 202 in ASL from an accredited college, then the student will have fulfilled our Foreign Language Proficiency [but will not receive college credits]. For three specific courses in the Virginia Community College System, we do grant transfer credit as outlined in the Transfer Guide. Otherwise, we have not established transfer equivalencies, so generally there is no transfer credit granted, since we’ve no equivalent courses to grant it for.”

“We do not offer ASL,” Dean of Undergraduate Studies Janice Zeman said in an email. “If a student enters W&M with four years of ASL in high school or with the equivalent of 202 in ASL from an accredited college, then the student will have fulfilled our Foreign Language Proficiency [but will not receive college credits]. For three specific courses in the Virginia Community College System, we do grant transfer credit as outlined in the Transfer Guide. Otherwise, we have not established transfer equivalencies, so generally there is no transfer credit granted, since we’ve no equivalent courses to grant it for.”

Sign Language Club President Jenny Harlow ’17 completed a three-year ASL program at Maggie Walker Governor’s School during high school and said that she had hoped that upon being accepted to the College, she would be able to transfer her credit.

“I got accepted to William and Mary in 2012 and I went on their website to see if I could get credit for sign language … I found the website, and they actually had a little section that specifically said American Sign Language is not accepted as it does not fulfill our language requirement,” Harlow said. “This is super problematic because sign language is a real language … and I kind of just accepted that my three years of sign language would not be awarded any sort of credit.”

Harlow said that while students at the College can choose other languages to fulfill their foreign language proficiency, offering credit for ASL courses could potentially attract students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“I talked to a lot of prospective students at Day for Admitted Students, and some of them have actually said I’m interested in William and Mary, but they don’t accept my sign language credit, or I’m interested but there’s no classes here for sign language, and I say well you can come to sign language club,” Harlow said. “I do think that this bill would definitely encourage people with a sign language background to be more interested in William and Mary.”

Philp Woodward ’01, J.D. ’04 founded the original Sign Language Club at the College in 1998. He started the club to teach informal sign language lessons to students who were interested in the language, but he also petitioned the College to offer ASL classes.

“As a freshman at W&M in 1998, I started a petition for W&M to offer American Sign Language (ASL) as a foreign language for academic credit in 1998, and I submitted the petition with 256 signatures to the Linguistics and Interdisciplinary Studies programs, which decided to offer courses for academic credit from 1999 until budget cuts were required in 2003,” Woodward said in an email.

Other Virginia colleges and universities offer ASL courses on campus. Liberty University recently designed an ASL major, and community colleges such as Northern Virginia Community College and Central Virginia Community College offer courses in American Sign Language and ASL interpretation.

“In my hometown, Richmond, VA, Deaf culture was a big deal and in Williamsburg, I saw no space for the celebration of Deaf culture,” co-founder of the current Sign Language Club Merci Best ’17 said. “I also wanted William and Mary to move towards counting ASL language credits as foreign language credits, as I knew other schools in Virginia were doing.”

The University of Virginia has a five-semester ASL program that also offers a guest lecture series and Deaf studies courses that cover history, literature and theater.

As a hearing person, I can never identify with the experience of a deaf student, but I can only imagine the isolation that an individual could feel if at the least their culture and identity was not even given credit,” Best said in an email. “By failing to work towards recognizing ASL credits William & Mary may run the risk of turning away potential applicants and the culture they identify with.”

“As a hearing person, I can never identify with the experience of a deaf student, but I can only imagine the isolation that an individual could feel if at the least their culture and identity was not even given credit,” Best said in an email. “By failing to work towards recognizing ASL credits William & Mary may run the risk of turning away potential applicants and the culture they identify with.”

During Woodward’s time on campus, the American Sign Language Club worked to promote awareness of the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. Woodward met his wife, Lyla Woodward ’03, after signing while working as on Orientation Aide. He said that he inspired her to join the club, and she later became its president and went to on to become a developmental therapist for children with disabilities.

“People who are deaf and hard of hearing make up as much as 10 percent of the population, especially as seniors age and lose their hearing,” Woodward said. “Many children with developmental disabilities and delays can learn to communicate their wants and needs in sign language before they start speaking. So, there are many reasons for students in today’s global environment to learn sign language or learn how to communicate effectively with people who are deaf and hard of hearing and people whose disabilities make them unable to use their voices.”

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