Michigan: UM-Flint denies student's petition to consider ASL a foreign language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Aug 6 13:56:15 UTC 2007

UM-Flint denies student's petition to consider ASL a foreign language

Sunday, August 05, 2007
By Beata Mostafavibmostafavi at flintjournal.com • 810.766.6210

Request denied

Here is an excerpt from a letter dated Nov. 2, 2005, from the
University of Michigan-Flint responding to Jill Maxwell's petition to
allow American Sign Language to fulfill her foreign language

"Your request was denied because it is the Department of Foreign
Languages' policy that although American Sign Language is considered a
language, it is not considered a foreign language. Furthermore, Mott
Community College does not consider American Sign Language a foreign

FLINT - For Jill Maxwell, talking at grandma's house was always normal.

Even though it meant blending the letters I, L and Y with her fingers
to say "I love you."

Or that she asked for her favorite treats - cookies, pop and cheese -
with swift-sliding hand shapes and facial expressions.

And that calling someone from another room meant flipping a light
switch or pounding on the floor so vibrations rippled through the
rooms. But as a student at the University of Michigan-Flint years
later, Maxwell was told her family's language didn't count - at least
not when it came to fulfilling her foreign language requirement.
"We're very cultural and immersed into our deaf heritage," said the
UM-Flint education student, 30, who uses American Sign Language to
communicate with roughly 25 relatives who are deaf.. "But UM-Flint
won't accept our language. It's discriminatory."

More than a year ago, Maxwell - who is not deaf - unsuccessfully
petitioned the school to allow her to test out of the foreign language
mandate with ASL, which is considered the third most common language
in the country behind Spanish. Colleges nationwide, including the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, UM-Flint's parent campus, and
Michigan State University, accept ASL as a foreign language. Some
academic officials say deaf culture comes with a history of political
struggles and ethnic variations. It has its own syntax, grammar and

But according to a letter from UM-Flint's Academic Standards
Committee, the Department of Foreign Languages' policy is that ASL is
not considered foreign. The department's chairwoman, Jamile Lawand,
said Michigan colleges that offer ASL usually do so out of a different
department, such as communication or linguistics. "We are interested
in exploring how other universities include ASL in their curriculum,"
she said in an e-mail to The Flint Journal. "Traditionally, it is not
offered out of a foreign language department."

She said the college tries to accommodate students. For example, a
student who already knows another language with or without any formal
instruction, such as Spanish, can place out of the requirement by
demonstrating proficiency.

But Maxwell, a DeWitt resident who also is trying to start an ASL club
on campus, argues that ASL can be one of the most valuable languages
to know in the world. And it's the most relevant to her future plans
to teach the deaf, she said.

"It's more personal to me than someone who just wants to study ASL, "
she said. "I don't think the visual language is getting the same
respect as hearing languages. It's insulting.

"I love UM, and I love going here," she added. "This is the one part
that is shameful to me."

Maxwell said shealways felt left out of family reunions where the
majority of people signed. She even faked going deaf so her mother
would teach her more sign language.

But once she learned the language, she always called herself bilingual.

In UM-Flint's letter, the university noted that Mott Community College
also does not consider ASL a foreign language.

But MCC's dean of humanities, Patricia Bergh, said there is no
language requirement to obtain an associate's degree, so there's never
been an effort to make ASL count as a foreign language.

"It's only been in recent years that ASL is being looked upon across
the country and at four-year institutions as meeting requirements for
another language," she said. "I fully perceive this happening here at
Mott in the near future."

Stevie Naeyaert, MCC's coordinator for the American Sign Language and
interpreter education program, has been through many struggles for

This just seems to be one more, said Naeyaert, who is deaf. "ASL is a
full language with its own syntax and own grammar structure, and it's
very different from English," she said through an interpreter. "The
word order is similar to French, so it can definitely be considered a
foreign language.

"People think ASL is like English on the hands, but it's not. It's a
different language entirely."

Naeyaert said there are many misconceptions about the deaf community.

Some people "look at deafness as a handicap or disability and that
people need help," she said. "No, we're a language minority. We aren't
disabled. We just speak a different language."

Genesee County - home to the Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint-
has 38,034 residents who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to a
report by the state's Division on Deaf and Hard of Hearing that's
based on Census data from 2003.

Maxwell, who left General Motors to go back to school and plans to
pursue a master's degree in deaf education at MSU, ended up taking
French at UM-Flint to complete requirements on time.

"It's too late for me," said Maxwell who will graduate from UM-Flint
next year and is contemplating collecting student signatures on a
petition to spur change.

"I'm fighting it for other students who have the doors closed to them.
It seems likeone of the last hurdles for civil rights."

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