American Sign Language

From left to right: April Haggard, Emma Prescott and Bret-Ashley McAlister

In typical Volunteer spirit, a group of students are seeking to give voice to those who haven’t been heard.

Emma Prescott and Bret-Ashley McAlister, two students from the University of Tennessee’s College of Arts and Sciences, have started a petition to make American Sign Language (ASL) serve as a foreign-language credit.

Multiple discussions have occurred within the College of Arts and Sciences over the years about ASL, but the petition has started a brand-new line of buzz.

McAlister explained her experience with attempting to try to take ASL as a foreign language credit.

“I’m in the College of Arts and Sciences because I’m a philosophy major. So I get no credit for the [ASL] class I’m taking, and they still require me to take another foreign language,” McAlister, a sophomore, said. “That is why I emailed the dean and started asking questions and why it wasn’t counted. They didn’t give me specifics, but they did tell me that they planned on voting sometime this year.”

Prescott, a senior in Deaf Education, cited similar reasons for starting the petition.

“I know many people in the College of Arts and Sciences who wanted to take ASL … but, as soon as they found out it wasn’t a foreign language credit, they didn’t have time in their class schedules and needed to throw that idea out the window,” Prescott said.

As of now, over 5,700 people have signed the petition out of a 7,000 person goal.

ASL as a credit would not only incentivize learning an underrepresented language. It would also shine a light on an underrepresented culture in our country.

April Haggard, UT’s ASL Program coordinator and a member of Knoxville’s deaf community, described the deaf community’s struggle for recognition.

“(UT) said that ASL is not an actual ‘foreign land language,’ thinking in terms of another country,” Haggard said. “I really appreciate the students in there getting this petition together … because they do consider it a foreign language, and that’s fabulous. But you kind of have to define what ‘foreign’ means first so that you can be able to understand and answer the question.”

Some of the College of Arts and Science’s concerns are resources and whether or not there are enough people to teach ASL.

Haggard admitted that that’s a problem on the ASL program’s end but still emphasized the importance of defining “foreign.”

According to Haggard, “foreign” shouldn't be limited to geographic borders. Since the deaf population has such a misunderstood culture, they are equally “foreign" as far as hearing people are concerned.

“Often times colleges and universities … think that American Sign Language doesn’t have a culture. We do have a culture,” Haggard said. “We are a cultural minority in a hearing world. That would be a definition of foreign, unfamiliar.”

Knoxville’s deaf community hosts numerous get-togethers and social events, exhibiting cultural practices unknown to the hearing population.

Though the petition shows support for ASL as foreign language credit, Prescott stated that the petition can’t do much to shape university policy.

“Our petition was just a show of support from the community, the students and different people in the area who know about sign language,” Prescott said. “We did the petition as a way to show support and not as a way to change anything.”

The group hopes the widespread support shown by Knoxvillians will open doors for the deaf community both on campus and beyond.

The College of Arts and Sciences will vote on the matter starting in mid to late October.

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