‘If we cut it, the community dies:’ USU suspends Utah’s only ASL education program indefinitely, devastating students, deaf community

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LOGAN, Utah (ABC4) — When Savannah Sparks graduated from Utah State University (USU) with a bachelor’s degree in 2021, she had one goal in mind: to pursue her master’s degree in Deaf Education as part of the School’s American Sign Language/Bilingual-Bicultural (ASL/Bi-Bi Education Program). Sparks, who was born deaf, was given the resources to learn ASL and English as a child, and because of the profound impact knowing both languages ​​had on her life, she knew from the time she was from an early age she wanted to pursue a career as an advocate for the deaf.

When she tried to apply for the 2021/22 academic year, Sparks learned that the program was full, so she waited a year to submit her application. Instead of receiving her letter of acceptance, however, she was told by Vine about the suspension of the program.

“That was my plan. I put my life on hold for a year because of this [program]”, says Sparks. “We’ve heard rumors about Utah Valley University, they’re thinking about starting one, but it’s going to take years and I don’t want to wait years to get into a program and finally start. my career.”

On January 5, Alan Smith, dean of the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services at USU, announced the indefinite suspension of the ASL/Bi-Bi program, with the caveat that current students will still be able to complete. The last graduates will graduate in the spring of 2023.

According to a statement released by the university, the decision was prompted by a lapse in accreditation status that prompted an internal review of the program.

“This review showed that the program track was not operationally functional, preventing us from delivering the high-quality education expected at Utah State University,” the statement said.

The impact of this decision, however — according to USU students, the Utah Deaf community, and Utah Deaf educators — could be catastrophic.

Michelle Tanner, superintendent of the deaf at Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, says the USU program is one of the only such programs in the country. The program takes a bilingual and bicultural approach to developing the next generation of Deaf educators, providing students with lessons in Deaf culture and honing their ASL skills until they are true language experts.

Students and educators at Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, photo courtesy of Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind

And while the University of Utah also houses a master’s degree in deaf education, Tanner says, without the program’s bilingual-bicultural approach, the program isn’t producing graduates who sign off well enough to put them in a classroom. English ASL.

Tanner says she hires teachers working in Utah Deaf schools almost exclusively from the USU ASL/Bi-Bi program. For this reason, suspending the program would have a significant impact on the already insufficient number of qualified teachers needed to work with deaf students.

“The nation as a whole in deaf education has a shortage of teachers,” says Tanner. “The main problem with this decision that is made in a university is that they don’t really see the faces of the children. I do. It haunts children, and children who are often the most vulnerable.

Tanner says that – even if the program returns in the future – having a lack of qualified teachers for a few years could have a huge impact on the education of deaf students in Utah, who need 1 to 5 or 1 10 teachers per student. report.

And indeed, the impact a qualified educator can have on a deaf student is profound. Derek Hooley, a member of Utah’s deaf community who grew up with teachers who graduated from USU’s ASL/Bi-Bi program, credits the program with shaping him into the man he is today. today.

“This program is the reason I am now,” Hooley told ABC4.com. “It helped me understand the world, helped me understand things around me, helped me get a good job, helped me be an example, told me I could do it, showed me that I could do it.”

Early in his professional career, Hooley worked for a construction company run by another deaf man. After many years of working in the industry, he was ready for a change and hoped to enter USU’s ASL/Bi-Bi program himself. Now he might not be able to.

“Because I know exactly what deaf people need, I wanted to come here and participate in this program,” he says. “I’ve been involved in the deaf community, and I want to be able to share and see and help people know they’re not alone and encourage them. I wanted to change that for my career.

And, his own career and experiences aside, Hooley echoes Tanner’s sentiments, saying the shockwaves of this decision will reverberate throughout the deaf community, in Utah and beyond.

“Partnering with Deaf people with this Bi-Bi program, having the culture, being able to sign, being able to have all of that together, ASL and culture are just combined, you have to know both,” explains- he. “So if you cut that, it will impact me and the deaf community, especially the kids in that community.”

Deaf community members, advocates, and ASL/Bi-Bi students before meeting Dean Alan Smith of USU’s Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, photo courtesy of Mykel Winn

And, in addition to the impact on the deaf, USU students are also affected by the decision.

For Emma Cole, a USU senior who is on her way to an ASL/Bi-Bi Deaf education, the program is what compelled her to seek out USU. Ever since bonding with a childhood friend’s sister and father – both deaf – and recognizing her love for working with children, Cole knew she wanted to pursue an education. in ASL as a career. As she searched for schools that offered the right accent, she found only two, one at Gallaudet University — a Washington, DC-based institution for the deaf — and USU.

But because, for some students, the bachelor’s degree stream of the program directly feeds into the master’s — and Cole hasn’t finished her bachelor’s yet — she won’t be able to complete the program.

And while USU also offers a Masters in Listening and Speaking (LSL) – which focuses more on training future teachers to provide students with hearing loss with the skills to develop spoken language, as opposed to teaching them the language signs – Cole says this program just isn’t a substitute.

“Personally, I am opposed to listening and spoken language, because it’s about getting the deaf child to use their hearing, which is the only sense they don’t have,” he explains. -she. “That’s the one thing they can’t do.”

The LSL program will not be suspended.

And, Tanner says that — while LSL programs and the teachers they generate are important — she has no shortage of LSL graduates qualified to teach.

But all may not be lost. Although the ASL/Bi-Bi program is small – it only graduates about 5 students each year, according to USU – the community it has created is powerful. Since the decision was announced, ASL/Bi-Bi students and Deaf people in Utah have come together to speak out and make their voices heard.

Cole started a petition that has garnered nearly 6,000 signatures so far. And, on February 8, a group of concerned students and community members – including Cole, Sparks, Hooley and Hooley’s younger sister, Mykel Winn – met with Dean Smith to express their concerns. The group told ABC4.com that Smith was very respectful and responsive, so they’re optimistic about the program’s future, but still concerned about the lack of a clear timeline from the university.

“We really, really cherish this program and recognize it as the beginning of this starting block. [for Deaf students.] So if we cut that, the family dies, the community dies,” Hooley says. “That’s what we’re fighting for, to show those people at the top how important it is to keep the program going and we’re ready to help solve this problem if they’re willing to listen to us.”

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