When I first began applying to colleges in my senior year of high school, I was determined to attend a school where I could fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming fluent in American Sign Language. About a month into the process, I had essentially given up on this aspiration completely. Universities with complete ASL programs—or even the ability to take ASL classes—were simply too hard to find.
ASL is often rejected as a foreign language credit across college campuses, if it is even offered as a class at all. Columbia and Barnard are no exception. Despite Columbia’s status as the third best-ranked college in the country, nowhere on campus are students able to study the third most used language in the United States in a formal setting. The closest thing the school has to an ASL or deaf culture class is the student-run club CU Sign, which meets weekly to learn about deaf history and practice signing. It’s better than nothing, but it is not nearly good enough.
ASL possesses a grammatical structure completely separate from that of the English language, as well as its own system of gestures and facial expressions that are used to assign meaning. Most linguists unanimously agree that ASL is a language distinct from English—in terms of sentence structure, ASL is actually more similar to spoken Japanese.
Beyond that, approximately two million people in North America are deaf or hard of hearing, and 500,000 use ASL as their main means of communication. Considering the vastness of this statistic, one would hope that ASL would be offered at Columbia alongside Ancient Egyptian, Aramaic, and Ottoman Turkish, which are only three of a multitude of extinct languages offered by the University. This is not to say that the study of extinct languages is unimportant, but with such a substantial population of deaf people living alongside us, shouldn’t we be making more of an effort to communicate with them?
Deaf history impacts the Barnard and Columbia community more profoundly than most students are aware. Frederick A. P. Barnard, the tenth president of Columbia University, or what was then called Columbia College, oversaw the college while a variety of new departments were added, research funds flourished, and the elective system was extended. He believed in and actively supported women’s equality, and was one of few men who pushed for women to be integrated into the college. After his death, Barnard College was created and named in his memory. He also happened to be profoundly deaf and was fluent in American Sign Language. Before his presidency at Columbia, he spent many years educating deaf and hard-of-hearing children. And yet, throughout his tenure at Columbia, and, in the many years after, sign language was never added to the curriculum.
Through Barnard, as well as the history of sign language in the United States, Columbia has deep ties to ASL. The University’s failure to acknowledge the necessity of making ASL accessible to students is rooted in a subtle but dangerous apathy for the well-being of the disabled community—an apathy that has been reflected in various, upsetting op-eds detailing the challenges that disabled students at Barnard and Columbia face every single day. The absence of ASL on campus is merely a more understated example of this insensitivity.
As a Barnard student, I am obviously thrilled that Frederick Barnard’s legacy has been carried out in the form of women’s education at Columbia. But I also believe that we owe it to his identity as a deaf person to promote the status of American Sign Language in higher-level education. More importantly, we owe it to the current deaf community, so that when they tell us their stories, we will understand.
Isabelle Robinson is a first-year at Barnard College. She is adamant in her opinion that the Deaf West Theatre production of the musical Spring Awakening is the best one to date, and will argue her point if challenged at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is hearing and, therefore, not nearly as well-versed in Deaf issues as the Deaf community is, and recommends you research Deaf activism for more information. Debbie Downer runs alternate Thursdays.
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