Niagara adds Sign Language Minor
Even though deaf people are unable to hear others, and many are unable to speak well, it does not mean they are less human than those who are fortunate enough to have the use of all five senses.
Although it is difficult to fully break away from stereotypes, NU creates guidance by offering classes in ASL. Recently, the language departments presented a second level of ASL, because students were so interested and intrigued, but two courses did not seem efficient enough to fully educate students about signing, the language and its culture. After years of composing propositions, ASL can now be declared as a minor.
“The five-course sequence in ASL and deaf studies is easy to add to just about any other major,” Dr. Henrik Borgstrom, chair of the Department of Classical and Modern Languages said. “The most obvious complements are perhaps health care and education, but obviously deaf persons are not limited to those two disciplines. A minor in ASL provides students with a specific skill set that can be useful no matter what career they eventually choose.”
Perhaps one of the most important lessons an NU student could learn is that the deaf have their own culture.
“Without the information, you have no one confronting any stereotypes you have about the deaf. Sometimes we don’t even realize we have stereotypes, because they’re so ingrained in the culture, we think it’s the truth,” said Dr. Nancy McGlen, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“I think that disabilities of any sort make people nervous, because we don't know how to behave around persons with special needs,” Borgstrom said. “Knowing that there is a significant Deaf community right here in Western New York is a first step in breaking down conventional stereotypes about Deafness. This is why our program is not exclusively an interpreter program. In addition to three courses in applied ASL, our minor focuses on deaf culture in general.”
“For someone who is born and raised in a deaf culture, it’s a linguistic difference, not a disability and loss. It’s a different way of exploring the world,” said ASL Professor Nanette Harmon, who went deaf after being diagnosed with a disease that severely affected her hearing. “Deaf people, by and large, don’t go thinking about the fact that they’re deaf, or women go around thinking they’re women. … It’s just another one of their characteristics.”
“Anytime you study any culture, it helps reduce stereotypes,” said Dr. Timothy Downs, vice president of Academic Affairs. “Deaf culture has its own norms – the way people behave. Anytime people learn about a culture, it helps reduce stereotypes. You can’t tell who is deaf. Anytime you can eliminate misperceptions is important, and I think it’s a great thing for us to do.”
“We just can’t create enough introductory courses to meet the need,” McGlen said. “When the department decided to change the course to a full-blown minor, it was clear we needed to also develop our courses to have the deaf culture in the department. And it’s critical.”
“ASL has become more and more popular,” said Dr. Downs. “We’ll have as many as 20 to 30 people who want to take the courses. The College of Arts and Sciences has done an excellent jobs building minors. It adds a more formal dimension. It legitimizes as an area of study.”
“From a practical standpoint, we are developing a knowledgebase and a skill set that is going to enhance the resume of any NU student that takes this as a minor,” said Professor Harmon. “There are Deaf people right here in our community and people in the greater community. It’s a ‘degree with a difference.’”
Administrative assistant, community advocate, human resource officer, sign language interpreter, social worker, teacher, health care worker. These are just a few of the many jobs students can pursue with a degree in ASL and deaf studies. The more advanced the degree, the better the job opportunities and the greater chance of advancing in the market.
“Job candidates with knowledge of a second language are more likely to be hired than those who do not; that is the simple truth,” Borgstrom said. “Knowledge of ASL allows students to communicate with people right here in their own community.”
“I think it’s a great idea for a minor, because especially if you’re going to be in an industry where you’re going to work with people,” said Downs. “Jobs hire people with different skills, and it differentiates and distinguishes you as a person with special skills.”
In American sign language, the possibilities are unlimited. It is not too late for underclassmen to declare a minor and learn the uniqueness behind ASL and Deaf culture.
The five courses offered in ASL are:
ASL 100: Introduction to ASL and deaf culture
ASL 200: Applied American sign language I
ASL 201: Applied American sign language II
ASL 210: Domestic diversity- American deaf culture
ASL 493: Internship/Co-op
Each of the five classes are worth three credits. For more information, visit www.mynu.niagara.edu and search under “Modern and Classical Languages.”