For many of us growing up, high schools offered so many different languages we could learn beyond English. Everything from Spanish and French to German and Hebrew. Even Latin.
But a growing number of public schools — including many here in Nassau County — are offering something many wish they had years ago: American Sign Language. And even if you’re too old for public school, it’s never too late to learn a language that, for more than a half-million Americans, is the primary — and sometimes the only — way to communicate.
Many of us mistakenly believe ASL is a language only for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. But effective communication requires both sides — the transmitter and the receiver — to clearly understand what’s being shared. ASL, like any language, is only good if the people being communicated to understand what is being shared.
And that’s the problem so many who depend on ASL face time after time. They speak through a complex series of gestures, but so few people understand. It makes everything from social experiences to school, and especially trying to function in a work environment, more difficult, if not impossible.
Making ASL fluency more widespread is the difference between someone who depends on ASL just fitting in, or thriving. That’s the argument Ariana Molina made in an opinion piece published last year for Cal State-Fullerton’s student publication, the Daily Titan.
“ASL is not only a practically useful language, but can also remove stigmas surrounding the deaf and hard of hearing community,” Molina wrote. “ASL courses are necessary for people to better understand the struggles of the Deaf community.”
The New York State Education Department promotes ASL as one of its key languages when it comes to awarding schools its Seal of Biliteracy. Yet on Long Island, the vast majority of students choose Spanish as their second language, while only a relative handful chose ASL.
That’s not for lack of trying by schools. Finding ASL educators isn’t as easy as it is to find those who teach Spanish, French or even Italian. But schools are looking, and they are making an effort to promote American Sign Language to the broader population, no matter what their hearing status is.
Nassau County’s emergency services also have worked hard to broaden access to its services, not necessarily by adopting ASL, but by offering the ability to text 911 once the new custom interface in which it invested more than $100,000 goes live.
But opening the world even wider to our friends in the Deaf community is something each of us can do as well. Nassau BOCES offers two courses — a six-week instructor-led course, or a self-paced course with no instructor — for just over $100. Nassau Community College offers its students a number of courses, from four levels of ASL to communication and culture in the Deaf community.
Also offering a significant program for its students is Hofstra University — a 160-hour experience that immerses them in the world of American Sign Language.
And for those who don’t mind the drive to Nesconset, the Cleary School for the Deaf offers American Sign Language classes for anyone 12 and older.
There are a number of other programs offerings ASL — many of them a simple online search away.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” We tell ourselves that everyone who can be communicated with is being communicated with, but the reality is that so many people are being left out.
Making ASL a part of all of our lives — whether we are part of the Deaf community or not — will ensure that more than a half-million of our friends, family members, fellow students and coworkers are never left out.