Courtesy of Mary Grace Hager '19

The Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project has worked for years on advocating for American Sign Language courses.

November 2, 2018

American Sign Language Courses Will Be Offered as Soon as Fall 2019

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After seven years of back-and-forth between students, the University and the Student Assembly, the College of Arts and Sciences will be introducing American Sign Language curriculum as early as next fall that can be used to satisfy the foreign language requirement, as part of a broader series of changes to the college’s curriculum.

This achievement is largely the result of an initiative led by the Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project, a student organization that was founded in 2011 to raise awareness about issues facing the Deaf community. CUDAP is a program of the Public Service Center, and the desire to create an ASL course sequence had been part of the club’s goals since its conception.

“I think it’s been a really long journey for all of us,” founding member of CUDAP Jackie Rachaf ’14 told The Sun on the phone, adding that she was very grateful for the efforts of all the involved parties in turning the idea into a reality.

“Speaking on behalf of the original board, we are truly proud that [CUDAP] has continued to advocate such success,” Rachaf said.

In March, the S.A. unanimously passed a resolution supporting CUDAP and advocating that the University offer ASL courses. The resolution was then sent to President Martha E. Pollack, and CUDAP and the S.A. did not hear back on the issue until very recently.

According to an email shared with The Sun, Pollack had passed the resolution on to former arts college Dean Gretchen Ritter ’83, who then referred it to the current Dean Ray Jayawardhana.

However, college bylaws state that this kind of decision is not made by the dean’s office but rather must be made by the college faculty, according to the email chain. Ted O’Donoghue, Zubrow Professor of Economics and senior associate dean for social science, wrote that the initiative thus became integrated into part of the broader discussion about curriculum revisions.

The vote on the revised curriculum — which in addition to the sign language approval included other expansive changes such as altering distribution requirements —  passed on Tuesday, with 182 faculty voting in favor of the proposal, 90 voting against and 18 abstaining.

O’Donoghue confirmed to The Sun that the ASL program will be housed in the Department of Linguistics and that a search will take place in the spring to hire someone with a July 1, 2019 start date and for classes to begin being offered in Fall 2019.

Furthermore, O’Donoghue clarified that there were really two “distinct (but related)” decisions made — the first was to offer ASL courses, and the second was to allow ASL to satisfy the foreign language requirement.

The decision to offer a course is made by an academic department, in this case linguistics, and requires it to prepare a course approval and have it approved by the Educational Policy Committee, with approval from the dean’s office if additional faculty need to be hired. The other decision to allow a course to satisfy graduation requirements needs approval from the entire College Faculty, which it gained in the vote earlier this week.

CUDAP and the S.A. resolution requested that the instructors for the courses identify as a member of the Deaf community “so that [the instructor] can speak to that aspect as well as the language because there’s a big culture surrounding ASL and deaf people who choose to use it rather than relying on English,” said CUDAP Secretary Katie Dillon ’19.

O’Donoghue told The Sun that the instructor will be chosen through an open search and “whether a person identifies as a member of the Deaf community will be a consideration in the search, although it will not be a requirement.”

Looking forward, Dillon said that CUDAP would love to be involved in the process of developing the program, but they currently do not know if that has been accomodated. According to O’Donoghue, it will be up to the relevant faculty who to consult when developing the curriculum.

CUDAP was originally founded after the Public Service Center got a call in 2011 from the local hospital that a deaf patient had been brought in but that there were no qualified interpreters to provide support, according to Rachaf, who worked at the center at the time. Rachaf and Joyce Muchan ’96, assistant director of student programs at the Public Service Center, both went to the hospital to assist.

“We are thankful that CUDAP students were able to successfully reinforce the message that one should never give up on the fight for social justice and equality,” Muchan said after receiving notice of the ASL approval.

Since 2011, CUDAP has been hard at work for many years advocating for its cause. In the early years, executive board members had various conversations with administrators trying to figure out how best to go about their proposal.

“I think just getting pointed from one administrator to another … it was frustrating, but we got to be heard by a lot of people, so that was probably ultimately very helpful,” CUDAP President Mary Grace Hager ’19 told The Sun.

Prior to the March S.A. resolution, CUDAP organized a petition in 2015 that received over 1,000 signatures and participated in a spring 2017 S.A. referendum that passed in favor of ASL satisfying the foreign language requirement, among other actions.

In spring 2017, Marilyn Migiel, senior associate dean of the arts college, told CUDAP members that budget constraints were preventing a 2000-level ASL course from being added immediately to Cornell’s curriculum, according to CUDAP.

O’Donoghue told The Sun that the funds for the new courses in Fall 2019 will be allocated by the arts college.

Looking forward, Dillon and Hager expressed hope that this milestone will help make the campus more accessible to the Deaf community.

“Currently, accessibility isn’t great for the Deaf [community] at Cornell, and if you look at other universities, since [having courses] leads to more students knowing ASL, they can communicate with the Deaf community and they can become more integrated with the student body,” Dillon said.

“In a broader vein, I think it’s important to bring visibility to ASL and disability initiatives on campus –- especially because, as a hard-of-hearing person myself, even though our daily battles are often invisible, they deserve a place in the larger diversity dialogue taking place,” Rachaf said.