After taking American Sign Language at his Texas high school and becoming fascinated with the language and culture of the deaf community, Miles McLendon was told his credits did not transfer over as a foreign language at LSU, unlike at public universities in his home state.
“I had to start over with Spanish and I was so surprised LSU didn’t have an ASL program,” McLendon said.
By his junior year, the political science and economics student had an idea: to use his position as a Student Government senator, specifically as the vice chairman of Academic Affairs, to introduce legislation that would urge the university to create an ASL program to teach the language and deaf culture to LSU students as part of the Department of World Languages.
The legislation passed on Nov. 3 with unanimous support. The proposal is now being sent to the Department of World Languages, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Faculty Senate’s Courses and Curricula committee.
Before the legislation was introduced and eventually passed, McLendon drafted a petition to gauge interest in creating such a program at LSU. The petition received 690 signatures in favor of allowing ASL to fulfill world language requirements.
“In Louisiana, ASL is recognized by the state Legislature as a language, and ASL classes can be implemented into any public school to meet foreign language requirements,” McLendon explained in the petition.
When McLendon’s fellow student senator, mechanical engineering sophomore Julius Pallotta, introduced similar legislation last semester, it didn’t gain much traction.
Unlike last semester, however, McLendon’s legislation was supported by Baton Rouge Community College, who just launched their own ASL program and hopes their credits can transfer over to LSU’s once established, and the Chair of the Department of World Languages, Rafael Orozco.
Orozco, a professor of Linguistics and Spanish, supports McLendon’s efforts to introduce the language to LSU’s campus, saying that “all languages deserve the same importance.”
“There is no language that is more powerful than any other,” Orozco said. “All languages, scientifically, are the same because there is no way to accurately determine whether a language is better or more beautiful.”
Orozco is working with McLendon to develop the ASL program. Orozco’s role will be to put together a curriculum to teach ASL under the Department of World Languages, including scheduling the courses, putting together a course proposal and hiring the faculty needed to teach the courses.
In developing the ASL program, Orozco has been in contact with the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tony Blanchard.
Orozco said that Blanchard has worked with him to develop proposals for an entry level course in ASL teaching basic communication including the alphabet, grammar and vocabulary taught by a certified ASL professor.
“This foundational class would be followed up by other classes building on the foundation the students learned in the basic class,” Orozco said. “Depending on student enrollment and demand, then we could do more advanced conversational courses in ASL.”
Orozco hopes that ASL becomes a permanent fixture to the World Languages Department’s curriculum that will help increase awareness and understanding of the often misunderstood language.
“People think that people are just signing randomly and that’s not what they’re doing,” Orozco said. “They’re actually following a systematic communication pattern that involves signs that are connected in ways that sense the same way as sentences when we speak English or any other language.”
Organizations like Hands That Hear have been advocating for and teaching ASL since spring 2020.
“We strive to bring together deaf, hard of hearing and hearing students on campus,” Sara Toal, Hands That Hear’s founder, said. “We have our deaf officers and leaders that teach ASL to our members so that we are better able to communicate and understand the deaf community.”
The club, which meets bi-weekly, has about 120 members, according to Toal, a nutritional science senior who also acts as the club’s president.
Toal takes pride in Hands That Hear’s work within the deaf community of Baton Rouge, including the Louisiana School for the Deaf.
“We have a service team that goes to local elementary schools twice a week and teach elementary students basic ASL,” Toal said.
Hands That Hear supports McLendon’s legislation to create an ASL program, with Toal calling it “a great first step” to an inclusive campus.
“We have been advocating for an addition of ASL courses to LSU ever since we started a year and a half ago,” Toal said.
Hands That Hear has been in close contact with those in student government creating the proposal, with Pallotta presenting at a recent meeting, Toal said.
“We give 110% of our support to the initiative,” she said. “Getting to know not only the deaf community at LSU but the local community in Baton Rouge and Louisiana makes it clear there is a huge demand to have ASL classes.”
After coming up with the idea of learning ASL on a whim during her freshman year after seeing people signing, Toal said her perspective of the deaf community changed entirely once she began learning ASL.
”It wasn’t a disability,” she said. “It was just a different way of living life.”
Like most any culture, the deaf community is vibrant, McLendon said. Part of the proposal he put together with Orozco is to create a course on deaf culture and the importance of representing it properly.
There is deaf cinema and even a subgenre of deaf music, McLendon said.
“There’s more than enough substance within the deaf community to create a course,” McLendon said. “Deaf cinema is very special. There’s even a whole range of music within the deaf community that surprises some people because they like to feel the vibrations. Often times, deaf people like to go to concerts because, even if they can’t hear the music the same as we do, they enjoy feeling the vibrations.”
Both McLendon and Toal stressed the importance of strong representation of the deaf community.
“Whenever you open those doors and have representation of a deaf person that is successful and doing what they love, it starts that conversation,” Toal said. “And that’s always going to be a great first step to acceptance."
"Being deaf isn’t a disability in life that’s going to hold you back in life; it will help you do amazing things," McLendon said.