‘It was frustrating’: Structural barriers hinder student’s access to sign languages

After her mother became deaf, third-year international relations (IR) major Tyesa Kruz started learning American Sign Language (ASL) and planned to take it to satisfy her mandatory IR language credit.

But while sign languages have over 70 million speakers worldwide, UBC doesn’t offer a single undergraduate sign language class — and some departments don’t even recognize ASL and its variants as a foreign language.

When Kruz brought her request to Arts Advising, she was told the only way she could take ASL as an undergraduate student was via a bridge program with Vancouver Community College (VCC). However, since VCC classes run on a different schedule than UBC’s, taking sign classes would risk overlap in UBC’s final season — meaning the program might even face cancellation.

“When I was talking to advising, they recommended against taking it because your exams could conflict,” said Kruz. “They said that they might even flat out cancel the program entirely – so you can do this, but you might start and not be able to finish.

“It was frustrating.”

In an email to The Ubyssey, Vice-Provost Dr. Pamela Ratner explained that the school does its best to accommodate students requesting a challenge exam in American Sign Language” for students who claim a degree of fluency in the language.

An additional barrier comes from the fact that even if a student completes the bridge program, the credits they receive might not count towards foreign language requirements, such as that of the IR major.

In an emailed statement to The Ubyssey, IR Department Chair Dr. Steven Lee said that the IR program is happy to accept sign language “as long as the sign language was in a language other than English.”

“This policy is consistent with university policy about learning "foreign" languages while also accommodating sign language,” Lee wrote.

However, sign language speakers believe that characterizing American or British Sign Language as “English” is fundamentally incorrect.

President of UBC Signs — the campus sign language association — Jacqueline Wax said that American Sign Language, and all sign variations, are grammatically completely separate from their spoken counterparts.

“American Sign Language uses a completely different word order, and it doesn’t use what we would even consider in English to be words,” said Wax. “It’s no more similar to English than Spanish is.”

Wax, whose club has been advocating for introducing undergraduate-level sign classes for years, added that failing to recognize sign languages contributes to a misconception that they aren’t “real” languages.

“Historically, there has been challenge to the idea that sign languages can be syntactically correct languages — which they are,” said Wax.

In a statement to The Ubyssey, Ratner stated that the linguistics department “is currently considering how to expand ASL content” but only in select classes and programs.

Both Wax and Kruz agree that it’s a wasted opportunity.

“It’s crazy there’s such a large speech language pathology and special education program here and that American sign language is not taught, even though it’s a core skill in those industries,” said Wax. “We’re actively blocking people from learning essential skills for certain industries and the general community.”

“Sign language enabled me to connect with so many people who were not a part of the world we get to live in,” said Kruz.

“Not offering it is neglecting a large portion of the population.”