As Canadian deaf scholars and academics, we applaud and appreciate the work towards a greater acceptance of ASL and LSQ among the general population of hearing people. The growing emphasis on sign language rights and human rights is an important step forward.
However, we are concerned about the current rollout in Ontario and Saskatchewan of ASL and LSQ curricula for hearing high school students. We are continuously faced with the problem of ASL and LSQ not being presented as a viable option for families with deaf children. Many Canadian deaf schools are shrinking. There is a documented lack of support for ASL and LSQ- related services to young deaf children and a lack of support for education in ASL and/or LSQ as a human right for deaf learners. For instance, in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, Newfoundland, the case of Carter Churchill continues to languish. Carter is a deaf elementary student who receives one hour to 90 minutes of instruction in ASL every seven school days. Across Canada, many other deaf students receive no access to ASL or LSQ in early intervention or education.
Deaf communities in Canada continue to be highly marginalized cultures at the federal, provincial, and local levels. Due to a chronic lack of support by provincial governments, including Ministries of Health, Education, Social Services, and Justice, the resources needed to sustain bilingual bicultural education for deaf children and vibrant deaf communities are dwindling. The desire to have a curriculum for second language learners that teaches ASL/LSQ and deaf culture to mainly hearing secondary students is fraught with difficulties. Therefore, we ask several questions:
- Who do these curricula benefit? Will the accrual of high school credits in ASL/LSQ have any impact on deaf children and youth who are graduating with a median reading level of grade 4? Who benefits from earning these credits? Will a smattering of some ASL or LSQ skills and some knowledge of deaf culture enable hearing students to become the “de facto experts” in deaf education in local and provincial jurisdictions? Deaf education is extremely complex. Meanwhile, in the USA ASL is a foreign language credit and highly popular among hearing learners. Due to the widespread popularity of ASL classes in the USA, hearing instructors outnumber deaf ASL instructors. At Carleton University in Ottawa, two out of three full-time, permanent ASL instructor and ASL program administrator positions are filled by hearing people. Our research and lived experience indicates that this surge in popularity has little to no impact on the lives of deaf children and youth who need this language.
- Perhaps a deeper question needs to be asked instead. Are deaf children provided access to a language that can make a huge difference in their education and life trajectories? In the context of deaf communities which have often been neglected by provincial governments, we ask: Why study languages that are struggling to maintain their vitality and are at this time at their lowest point in 200 years? How can sign language be learned without access to a critical mass of deaf people? Teaching ASL or LSQ to hearing people does not ensure the vitality of ASL/LSQ or Deaf Culture. Keeping ASL and LSQ away from deaf children and youth and obliterating deaf culture does, however, ensure linguicide.
- Finally, who will teach these curricula within school boards and divisions? Already, most school divisions are autonomous in providing deaf education services and can also “appoint” people to teach ASL or LSQ. What will be the qualifications of ASL/LSQ “teachers”? How will they be recruited? How will they be accountable to the school divisions? How will they be accountable to the Ministry of Education? In Ontario, where the Ontario College of Teachers has recently published second-language ASL and LSQ curricula, there is a very small number of ASL- and LSQ-fluent deaf high school teachers with OCT licensure. Should these teachers and the resources they carry be diverted from deaf schools and classrooms with deaf students in the interest of providing an ASL or LSQ class for hearing learners? Or will hearing teachers with OCT licensure begin teaching ASL and LSQ classes?
Perhaps the provincial Ministries of Education, Health and Social Services and local school boards could reflect further about creating curricula for hearing learners while neglecting a highly marginalized population and without considering the Ministries’ historical and current roles in bringing about linguicide and the cultural devastation of Canadian deaf communities in various locales. Providing ASL and LSQ curricula for hearing students may result in further language and cultural appropriation and further harm deaf communities. Instead, we advocate for hiring deaf teachers, removing barriers to teacher licensure for deaf people, and providing bursaries to train deaf people who are already working with deaf learners in Canadian classrooms but who are not formally qualified or trained. Indeed, the provincial Ministries of Education should develop a framework for bilingual and bicultural education that is centered around a first-language K-12 ASL and LSQ curriculum for deaf students. Such a curriculum for ASL has been under development in Ontario since 1991 but has never been published or released. The provincial Ministries of Education should work more closely with school divisions to establish standards for deaf education services and the maintenance of ASL, LSQ, and deaf culture.
Let’s not put the cart before the horse. We Deaf people have valuable capital and have choices as to where we indicate support for initiatives from provincial governments. Provincial governments are seeking validation from us as to their projects. An ASL or LSQ curriculum for hearing learners is only ONE of the initiatives we can support. However, support for deaf education and the transmission of ASL/LSQ and deaf culture to deaf children and youth has become a neglected issue. It is time to dust off our mission to influence deaf education and put our energy into protecting ASL, LSQ, and deaf culture for the sake of cultural and linguistic vitality and the educational rights of deaf children.
We urge deaf organizations and community representatives to respectfully decline to support these provincial curricular initiatives until a thoughtful framework is in place for the provision of a bilingual bicultural education for deaf children and youth who desperately need it.
Kristin Snoddon, Ph.D., Associate Professor, School of Early Childhood Studies, Ryerson University
Joanne (Jo) Weber, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair (Tier II) and Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta