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Should New Jersey School Districts Allow American Sign Language To Replace Traditional Languages To Fulfill High School Graduation Foreign Language Requirements To Students Other Than Those Who Are Hearing Impaired?

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Should New Jersey School Districts Allow American Sign Language To Replace Traditional Languages To Fulfill High School Graduation Foreign Language Requirements To Students Other Than Those Who Are Hearing Impaired?

  • Julie Warshaw
  • June 27, 2017

In 1995, the New Jersey State Assembly and the Senate passed Senate Resolution SR-80 and Assembly Resolution AR-103, which recognized American Sign Language and the Deaf Culture and urged the State institutions and high schools to give foreign language credit to those who completed an American Sign Language course of study. However, these Resolutions only made recommendations to schools and they failed to address other students or any other disabilities, aside from persons with hearing impairments. To date, no Bill has been proposed on this topic mandating that schools offer this option for students with hearing impairments, students with other disabilities, or for students without any disabilities.  Currently, I am pursuing the proposal of a Bill before the New Jersey State Legislature on this topic.  It is my belief, with the support of several groups, organizations and individuals in the field of special education, that if schools must continue to require that students meet certain criteria to fulfill their foreign language graduation requirements, high schools should offer or allow the option to substitute, American Sign Language, in lieu of a traditional foreign language, to students, with or without disabilities.  To enable all students’ access to American Sign Language is a first step in removing the stigma that persons with disabilities comprise a segregated population.

            Students with disabilities typically have a 504 educational plan or are classified and a document called an Individualized Education Plan or IEP is implemented. This legal document sets forth the child’s disabilities, test scores, relevant medical information, evaluations by educators, child study team members, and/or private evaluations. It also establishes an educational program for the student and it outlines the services and/or modifications that the child will receive to address the student’s individual educational, physical, social, and emotional needs.  This document also sets forth goals and objectives that must be met by the school district.  Since many students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, central auditory processing, memory issues, cognition, decoding, visual distortions or deficits, and speech and language deficits, receive modifications in their assignments, class work, test taking time, etc. modifications in their foreign language requirements should also be included in their IEP or 504 designation.

            In addition, students with learning disabilities often learn and retain information differently than other students. For example, students with learning disabilities benefit from repetition, daily reviews of prior classroom discussions, smaller class sizes, more individualized teaching, and multisensory teaching methods and techniques. Many students may need to see, hear, or use manipulatives to grasp concepts that other students can absorb through a standard oral lecture.  Multisensory teaching is at the heart of American Sign Language (hereinafter referred to as “ASL.”) because it is visual, cognitive, and manipulative requiring students to use hand and facial gestures to communicate.  In contrast, traditional “Romance” languages typically taught in the school districts are often based on grammar, decoding, and verbal skills of pronunciation.  For a student who has trouble reading due to dyslexia or memory issues, it is difficult enough for them to learn to read English or their native language no less a foreign language with varying spellings, grammar rules, pronunciations, inflections, and intonations.  To require a student with these types or similar disabilities to complete a traditional foreign language requirement, without any other option that may better meet their needs, sets the student up for failure rather than for success. To allow high school students, with or without hearing impairment, to take ASL courses to fulfill their foreign language graduation requirement gives students with disabilities a fighting chance to succeed, it would likely lead to better learning, comprehension, and retention of the language, and students could acquire needed skills that could lead to future employment.

            It is also important to note that is the third most used language in America and since the initiative of inclusion, many hearing impaired students have been integrated into public schools and many schools for the hearing impaired that taught ASL no longer exist. This in theory is a great idea but the reality is that these students may not be able to fully and freely communicate with “mainstream” students because other students have never learned ASL. This is a form of social isolation. To work toward equality and true inclusivity, school districts need to recognize the significance of ASL, its teaching benefits, and its need in the workplace.  Due to a failing economy and a global marketplace, there is a need to communicate with a universal language, and to interpret speeches and dialogues in various cultures and languages.  Many laws mandate that an interpreter be available to assist the hearing impaired. Since many private schools for the hearing impaired have closed, the opportunity to acquire ASL skills is limited but the need throughout the world has increased. Therefore, there is a likely need for people trained in this language.

                There appears to be support for ASL being offered to students in New Jersey high schools. The National Council of State Supervisors for Languages indicates on their website under State Reports entitled, “American Sign Language (ASL) as a Foreign/ World Language Summary of State Responses November 2010,” twenty-three (23) states responded in the affirmative that ASL is recognized as a world language and most of those states allowed credit for ASL as a world language toward fulfillment of high school graduation requirements. New Jersey specifically responded, ”ASL can be used to fulfill foreign language requirements, which are determined by local education agencies.”  Further, pursuant to the State of New Jersey Department of Education website regarding World Languages, it states,

The choice of languages might include, but is not limited to, the study of commonly taught European languages (e.g., French, Italian, Spanish), classical languages (e.g. Latin, Greek), less commonly taught languages (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Russian), heritage languages (e.g. Arabic, Haitian Creole, Korean) and American Sign Language (ASL).” It further states with regard to Special Needs Students, “If a student’s disability entitles him./her to receive special education services, the study of world languages should be included in the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), wherein appropriate modifications are delineated.

Further, the State of New Jersey Department of Education website also states in the New Jersey Statutes Annotated, specifically N.J.S.A. 18A:35-4.18 states that,  “Graduation Credits- This law enacted in August 2001 provides students in public school the opportunity to receive instruction in and graduation credit for a world language not taught in the public school district.”  This website also sets forth a sections entitled,  “Guidelines for Organizations Seeking Approval of Instructional Programs Offering World Languages Not Taught in Public School Districts,” “Procedures to be used by New Jersey School Districts for Approval of Instructional Programs Offering World Languages not Taught in Public School Districts,” and “Non-Public School World Languages Program Application Form.”  Clearly, New Jersey is receptive to the notion that ASL can be considered a world language and there is a process in place to obtain instruction in ASL and an application process. Then it is logical to ask, why is ASL still not recognized or offered in most school districts in New Jersey?  In an article by Michael Walsh, The Hartford Courant, entitled, “Students May Get World Language Credit for Sign Language,” dated April 3, 2011, high school students in Connecticut supported a Bill in their State Legislature that proposed offering ASL in the schools, no longer as a language arts course, but as a world language course. Harvey Corson, Vice President of the Connecticut Association for the Deaf indicated that, “Connecticut is the only state that considers sign language as part of language arts.”  He also noted that ASL is not just “’signed English.’” The Bill was supported by Senator Michael McLachlan, Representative Joseph Taborsack.  Mary Silvestri, a high school ASL teacher was quoted as saying, “’More ASL classes would be set up by interested schools, resulting in more people learning ASL…The more people learning and using ASL, the more people we can communicate with in our community.’”  Therefore, there appears to be some clear recognition of ASL as an acceptable world language that would qualify to fulfill the graduation requirements.

            Cost and practicality must also play a role in this discussion. School districts have limited resources and are trying to stretch every dollar they can to accommodate the number of children in their care.  However, without getting into the legal ramifications of potential violations of the American Disabilities Act and other civil rights statutes, it is logical to assume that a student’s right could be violated if ASL is their only form of communication and the district did not offer it. For purposes of this discussion, let us assume that ASL is not the students’ only form of communication but rather, due to their disabilities or just sheer interest in learning ASL, public school districts should be mandated to offer a way to accomplish this goal.  There are several options that could be considered. One such option is to hire a teacher certified in ASL and offer the course to all students, with or without disabilities, other than to students with hearing impairments, who require ASL to be offered to them.  This will likely be unfeasible and not a practical scenario.  Another option for school districts to consider is to select programs outside of the school district such as on-line courses or courses offered in other school districts. Districts could potentially share their resources and provide centrally located courses, summer courses, or independent study programs that meet the Department of Education’s standards as well as the, “Requirements for Teaching American Sign Language,” written by Therese Sheehan, Carol Albritton, and Cheri Quinlan, dated May 2011 and promulgated by the New Jersey Department of Education.  These requirements also reference teaching ASL to children K-12 world language programs. It is important to note that many parents already teach their children rudimentary sign language as infants and toddlers to communicate their needs until they develop spoken words.  Therefore, some children may already be familiar with ASL at a young age.

Another option would be accredited or approved on-line courses, many of which are free of charge (such as currently offered by the American Sign Language University, ASL Browser, ASL Pro, and Start American Sign Language) or at a cost (such as currently offered by Signing Online), could be taken by high school students at the expense of the families, with allowances made for indigent or financial hardships.  Another option would be to work with local universities or colleges that offer ASL courses and design an appropriate course through the use of interactive webnars to teach and participate in the course, with standards established for examinations.  Some districts offer what is called Option II, wherein students can take on-line courses to fulfill other such graduation requirements or students can get credit for high school courses by participating in activities outside of school.  It is imperative that school districts think outside the proverbial box and design innovative and creative solutions using the framework, already provided by the New Jersey Department of Education, and today’s technologies to assist high school students, with or without disabilities, in satisfying their foreign language graduation requirements through the study of ASL.

Article Name
Should New Jersey School Districts Allow American Sign Language To Replace Traditional Languages To Fulfill High School Graduation Foreign Language Requirements To Students Other Than Those Who Are Hearing Impaired?
To enable all students’ access to American Sign Language is a first step in removing the stigma that persons with disabilities comprise a segregated population.
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Warshaw Law Firm, LLC
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