UMD students want to add minor in American Sign Language

Allison Dufresne's decision to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth had much to do with the school's American Sign Language classes. Dufresne, who is deaf, said the classes meant there would be more students she could talk to. When she meets...

Allison Dufresne's decision to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth had much to do with the school's American Sign Language classes.

Dufresne, who is deaf, said the classes meant there would be more students she could talk to. When she meets someone who knows ASL, "It's like, 'Wow, you know sign language?' " Dufresne said through an interpreter.

" 'Oh, man, that's great, it makes my job easier.' "

But those classes don't amount to a major or a minor at UMD, and funding for the elective courses is decided yearly. The student group Access for All will hold a forum Thursday to raise awareness about the importance of the classes and will propose that UMD add an ASL minor to secure the future of the classes. The group has a petition filled with more than 800 signatures asking for a minor.

UMD had six sections of ASL level one in 2004. Since the fall of 2005, only four sections have been offered. There is only one section of level three offered this semester, and it was added to the catalog during the summer. Fourth and fifth levels were added and then cut in recent years, said Nancy Diener, program coordinator for the deaf, hard of hearing and deaf blind at UMD. About 150 students are enrolled in ASL classes this semester, and each section of level one had closed wait lists, with the exception of a few seats held for continuing education students.


Because ASL classes are elective, its department first provides money for classes students need to complete major and minor coursework, said Jackie Millslagle, associate dean of the College of Education and Human Service Professions. ASL is one of the elective choices paid for with "nonrecurring" money, she said, which remains once classes that fulfill programs have been taken care of.

"In the past few years we've had less of those kinds of funds available," she said.

The classes count only toward liberal education requirements. Not a single major or minor requires ASL. Despite that, senior Galynn White wanted to take an ASL class but couldn't get in,

"So many people take it and get nothing but personal development out of it," said White, who is a peer adviser for the group Access for All. She knows several students studying to teach and to work in human services who want to take ASL classes.

Because recent Minnesota legislation requires newborns to be screened for hearing skills by one month, more hearing problems are being discovered, so it's even more important to learn the language, she said.

A proposal for an ASL minor was brought forth about six years ago, Millslagle said, but faculty couldn't be secured. She said the two departments that would take ownership of the program would be willing to look at the proposal again and try for staffing once more. Adding a new minor would involve several steps, ending with approval from the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.

"Finding qualified faculty is an issue," said Robert Krumwiede, director of continuing education at UMD, the second department ASL would fall under. Faculty with the right qualifications to teach students and send them to institutions with full programs is hard to find in this part of the state, he said.

Data show that while lower-level sections that fulfill liberal education requirements fill up, higher-level classes, when UMD had them, remained stable, meaning students don't generally move on to higher levels, Millslagle said.


If those classes don't get the same amount of students, it's because they're not fulfilling anything, White said. "With a minor there would be more interest because there would be more incentive," she said.

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, there are about 500,000 deaf and hard of hearing residents in Minnesota. Of that number, about 70,000 are completely deaf. There are about 20 deaf and hard of hearing students at UMD, three full-time interpreters and four part-time interpreters, Diener said.

Until this year when the College of St. Scholastica began offering level three of ASL, "UMD has historically been the only college north of the Twin Cities to offer upper levels," Diener said. "UMD has a very good reputation for providing excellent ASL coursework."

Students who have taken upper-level classes when offered have told Diener the skill was what often got them their first job.

"There is a nationwide shortage of sign language interpreters," she said, and because sign language can be used with hearing children with speech impairment and other developmental disorders, there's a greater need for teachers.

"Its application goes beyond just the population of deaf people," Diener said. "UMD has minors in French, German, Spanish and Ojibwe. They've already got a good structure and models in place."

White said UMD has always fostered a multicultural atmosphere, and an ASL minor would fit.

"The campus is known for being accessible," she said. "It's all indoors, there's a good disability program, it would be a shame to let [ASL classes] go."


JANA HOLLINGSWORTH covers higher education. She can be reached at (218) 279-5501 or by e-mail at .

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