As the primary language for many of the roughly 1 million American citizens who are deaf, American Sign Language should be taught more often as a second language and is undervalued in the U.S. education system.
It is difficult to identify how many Americans use ASL as their first language because it is not addressed by the Census Bureau. Most estimates place the population of native ASL speakers between 250,000 and 500,000, based on a study done in the early 1970s. No more recent studies have evaluated the extent of ASL usage in the U.S. Other estimates propose there could be upward of 1 million ASL users based on the U.S. deaf population.
It is well-known ASL is often used by individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. However, it is also used by many with conditions that affect their oral motor skills such as cerebral palsy and aphasia and disorders that impact social skills such as autism. It gives those who are nonverbal an opportunity to interact with their environments and to communicate with those around them.
Despite the significant population of ASL users within the U.S., sign language is rarely offered as a second language at schools and colleges. The state of Illinois, among most other states, recognizes ASL as a foreign language for high school credit, according to the National Association of the Deaf. Many schools, however, do not offer classes due in part to a shortage of ASL-certified teachers.
SIUE does not currently offer any courses in ASL for credit; however, it is currently hosting an introductory non-credit course Thursday nights through the Educational Outreach program. The Office of Educational Outreach has previously offered an intermediate course as well. The Fall 2019 Educational Outreach Catalog has not been released.
ASL should be emphasized as a language many SIUE students should learn prior to graduation, especially if they are planning on entering careers in educational settings or health fields. Learning sign language would allow these future teachers and medical personnel to speak to more of their students and patients in their native language. Being ASL-certified educators or health professionals would also allow them to act as resources for parents and children who are attempting to learn the language.
Learning ASL would not only benefit individuals entering these fields but also those who may serve members of the deaf community such as law enforcement and emergency response workers. ASL interpreters are also in demand in settings such as courts, governmental agencies and hospitals.
Students should consider learning ASL as an alternative to or in addition to a foreign language. Learning ASL would not only expand their means of communication but also enrich their understanding about those with disabilities.