Friday, March 18, 2011

Students try to get Kent State University to reinstate ASL as general language elective


Why did Drew Hellebrand sign up for an American Sign Language class at Kent State University?

Sheer curiosity. "A couple of my roommates were taking [ASL], and I would see them signing back and forth across the house and it drove me nuts," he laughs.

That's how Hellebrand - now a 25-year-old Kent State senior - discovered his passion for sign language and deaf culture. The school allows students to take ASL classes to satisfy their foreign language requirement, just as if they were taking Spanish or German.

But that changed a few weeks ago, when Kent State announced that students would no longer be able to take ASL to earn foreign language credits, citing budget cuts. Hellebrand, and a small group of students who've dubbed themselves the "Silent Standoff," sprang into action.

University officials attribute the restriction to funding cuts and the need to reduce class offerings, Hellebrand said -- but other Kent State language programs haven't been slapped with this restriction.

Arguing that this amounts to "deaf discrimination," ASL students are using to petition Dr. Jennifer Larson, Kent State's Chair of the Modern and Classical Language Studies Department, to reverse the decision and let all students take ASL classes for foreign language credit.

Restricting ASL classes to only ASL majors will hamper the growth of deaf advocates and allies, students worry -- which will have a ripple effect far outside of Kent State. "Many of us found a passion for language and for deaf culture after taking [ASL], that we didn't have before," Hellebrand told How can someone who's never taken a sign language class know if they want to major in it?

In fewer than 24 hours, more than 500 have signed the petition - many from the deaf and ASL community. The "Silent Standoff" group is also trying to arrange a meeting with Dr. Larson, hopefully as soon as this week, and publicizing the issue through Facebook and on-campus flyers.

Hellebrand, who started the petition on, is a criminal justice major who wants to study politics and grassroots organizing in graduate school - he hopes to use his sign language skills to reach out to under-served deaf communities. Although faculty members have attributed faculty layoffs and class cuts to budget issues, the "Silent Standoff" group sees the cuts as disproportionately targeting the ASL program.

"There are better ways to make cuts," he said. You can read more about their petition, and sign it, here.