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ETSU’s American Sign Language minor is addressing education need in Tennessee

Contributed • Oct 11, 2019 at 4:29 PM

A new law sparked interest in a new minor in American Sign Language at East Tennessee State University.

Just one year later, the ASL minor is thriving and meeting the needs of educators, students and professionals from across the state.

ETSU recognized a growing need for ASL education when the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation in 2017 that recognized ASL as a modern language that may fulfill the high school graduation requirement for world language credits.

To meet the increased demand for ASL, ETSU introduced a new ASL minor in the fall of 2018. The minor is housed in the Department of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology in the College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences.

Since its inception, the ASL minor has grown substantially. The number of students who have declared the minor has increased from 24 to more than 60 currently enrolled in the minor.

“Due to the high demand, we are also offering twice as many classes this fall,” said Ann Knudsvig, assistant professor.

“Last fall, we only offered four courses during the semester; this year, we have eight – seven classes on the main ETSU campus and one on ETSU’s Allandale campus in Kingsport. We also are in the process of hiring another full-time faculty member.”

ETSU junior Allison Winters is majoring in Media and Communications and was excited that the university added ASL as a minor.

“I hope to use the sign language skills I learn to become a certified interpreter and in my own profession,” Winters said.

“As a journalist, communication is so important. I would love to emphasize the voices of the deaf community who are often not used as sources because there is not a clear path of communication for them.

“I hope to be able to advocate for the deaf and have a deeper understanding and appreciation for their culture.”

In addition to traditional ETSU students, the ASL course on the Allandale campus is attracting high school dual enrollment students who are taking ASL for high school and college credit, Knudsvig said.

Interest in the ASL courses is also growing among high school educators, as there is a nationwide shortage of teachers of world languages, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

For the 2017-18 academic year, at least 49 of 56 U.S. states and territories experienced shortages in teachers qualified to teach World Languages and Bilingual Education, the council said.

The shortages are projected to grow, and by 2025, there could be a hiring gap of 100,000 teachers annually, the ACTFL reports.

“I’ve been in conversations to find out what high schools need in order to be able to continue to offer more opportunities for students to take ASL courses,” Knudsvig said.

“One of the things high schools want to do is educate their own faculty and get them certified to teach ASL courses.”

To become certified, educators must pass the American Sign Language Proficiency Index test. In summer of 2020, ETSU hopes to offer ASL 1 and ASL 2.

“We are hoping to design a program with the local schools to meet the needs of those teachers wishing to add ASL as an endorsement,” Knudsvig said.

In addition to educators, the ASL minor also has been well-received by other members of the community.

“We’ve had great support from the deaf community, and also the medical community, where students who are studying for many types of health care professions are able to use their ASL skills and help as they wait for an ASL interpreter to arrive,” Knudsvig said.

“Ultimately, being able to better communicate with deaf patients will facilitate better outcomes.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for interpreters and translators is projected to grow 19% over the next decade, which is much faster than average occupation growth.

“Overall, the ASL minor offers so much potential to meet a variety of needs – in education, in health care, and in other sectors across our community,” Knudsvig said.

The ASL minor has been a catalyst for campus involvement in the deaf community. For example, every month there are “Deaf Chats” in the library, where ASL students and community members alike are encouraged to mingle, to get to know each other and play games with each other. This helps students engage in real-life situations using ASL and learn from people who are deaf.

The minor in ASL consists of 18 credit hours of study. While the minor does not lead to certification to be an interpreter for the deaf, it does prepare students for certification by providing extensive training and skills in ASL and meets the course requirements in deaf culture and ASL literature.

“Having ASL as my minor has shaped my life for the better, and I am so thankful that ETSU offers these courses,” Winters said.

“I have learned so much about the deaf community and have enjoyed sharing this knowledge with my friends and family. I encourage any students who are interested in this minor to give it a chance. You will see the world differently afterward.”

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