News, Off campus

ETSU student seeks recognition of ASL and Deaf culture

20-year-old Eliza Billings, a former Livingston Academy student, pushes for change at East Tennessee State University. Photo by Megan Reagan.

American Sign Language has been recognized as its own language in the United States since the 1960s, and Tennessee passed legislation in 2017 recognizing it as a modern language that fulfills high school foreign language requirements; however, students at East Tennessee State University say that the institution has fallen behind the times.

A former Livingston Academy student, Eliza Billings, said the university is failing to recognize ASL as a world language by not allowing it to fulfill second language requirements in its College of Arts and Sciences.

“They’re failing to recognize the Deaf community as a culture that has its own language,” 20-year-old Billings said.

She explained the issue arose out of the university requiring a foreign, or “world”, language in certain programs, but ASL does not fulfill that requirement.

Billings said that in meetings with school officials it was claimed that ASL has no cultural differences and is not “different enough” from English.

ASL, Billings argues, has its own grammar and syntax rules that separate it from traditional spoken English, and separately from technicalities Deaf culture is significant and worth acknowledging. 

“The sentence is set up more like you structure a sentence in French or Spanish,” she said. “But it is also insulting to say the Deaf culture is ‘too similar’ to American culture.”

Billings also said she feels university is missing a major piece in why it is important for students to learn a second language.

“They’re failing to understand the true purpose of learning a foreign language,” she said. “Which is to break communication barriers, and in turn that allows people to immerse themselves into a culture that is different from their own. And despite their belief, Deaf culture is vastly different from that of mainstream American culture.”

Billings is a biology major minoring in ASL, and in her program of study, she is not required to have a foreign language. 

“This, for me, is not for personal gain,” she said. “But it is about ASL and the Deaf community getting the recognition it deserves.”

Billings created a petition, and as of late Wednesday, it has garnered nearly 600 signatures.

Some of the petition’s signers are criticizing the university for being “exclusionary and ableist.”

“Having worked with the Deaf community locally as an ASL interpreter I realize the positive impact that ASL as a fully recognized foreign language benefits not just the Deaf community by reducing stigma, but also offers enrichment to students wishing to take the ASL courses, and future career opportunities for them,” one signer said. “Multiple reputable studies delineate the similarities between ASL and spoken languages. It is certainly time that ETSU make this a language offering on par with its spoken language peers.”