Sign language courses in high school a good move, advocate says

Starting this fall, Ontario high schools may offer American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ) as a second language.

But availability of the new courses will depend on the decisions made at the school board level

With more people learning sign language and deaf culture, it will help the deaf community to feel less isolated, an advocate says. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

Starting this fall, Ontario high schools may offer American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ) as a second language.

It's great news for people like Travis Morgan, who's with the Northern Ontario Association for the Deaf, but he says the development came as a bit of a surprise.

"We weren't advocating for it to be in high school. We were advocating for it to be an introductory course in elementary school."

ASL and LSQ are distinct languages, each with unique histories, cultural references and distinct grammar and syntax. To ensure linguistic accuracy, and to include authentic ASL and LSQ stories, the Ministry of Education consulted with the ASL and LSQ communities on the course content.

Morgan says the current resources available to take American Sign Language are unfortunately limited.

"Often times you have to pay for it. You have to go to a community class offered by the Canadian Hearing Service. By offering it in high school, anyone can take it."

Teaching this second language in high school holds a lot of promise, he notes.

"There are two major things that we the deaf community hope to get out of it. The first one, we have a severe shortage of interpreters and that is actually affecting mainstream education right now. And a lot of times school boards say 'we can't provide your child with an interpreter because none can be found'," he said.

"On the mental health side, it's very isolating. Ninety per cent of deaf individuals are born to hearing families, so they don't learn sign language or they have to learn it with their parents. So there's a bit of a language delay or a deprivation. So deaf people who have to grow up a long way from the deaf school, which are in London, Milton and Belleville, it's hard for them to find friends or to socialize."

Travis Morgan is with the Northern Ontario Association for the Deaf. He says he's hopeful about the launch of sign language classes in Ontario high schools this fall. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

With the introduction of the sign language curriculum, improved mental health in the deaf community is something Morgan says he hopes to see.

"A lot of my deaf friends share stories about going to Starbucks and the barista would sign, 'Hi, what kind of coffee do you want?' And that makes a huge difference. And that keeps bringing the customer back there because there's that one person who can take the order," he said.

"By having more and more young adults coming out of high school learning sign language, there is that awareness of a different perspective. So we're hoping with this program that understanding will continue to develop." 

Morgan says he's concerned there won't be enough resources and qualified teachers to roll out the program.

"I know probably about five people who are fully qualified to teach in high school. I haven't actually heard how [it's going to happen]. We don't even know if this is a pure sign language course, or if they are going to be including an introduction to deaf culture, to help students understand the stresses that come with hearing loss," he said.

"Hearing loss is mentally draining. And the more you have, the harder it is. Deafness is really hard to talk about because every time we try to explain it to hearing people, it kind of gets dismissed. So by increasing awareness of what hearing loss actually is, how hard people with deafness have to work to try to understand what's being said, maybe we'll change how we educate."

According to a ministry spokesperson, the availability of the new sign language courses will depend on each individual school board, as boards are not expected to offer all courses from the Ontario curriculum.

"As this is the first ministry-developed course of LSQ as a second language in Canada, the Ministry of Education is also funding a pilot-project for an LSQ Competency Assessment Tool, which will, as a first step, allow for the recruitment and training of qualified interviewers and evaluators, for the assessment and hiring of qualified LSQ teachers to teach it as a second language course in French-language school boards' secondary schools."

With files from Sarah MacMillan


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