College program leads way in deaf education Western Maryland offers first master's in sign language

May 04, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Western Maryland College, which has the world's largest graduate school program in deaf education, will add a new program next month offering the first master of science degree in American Sign Language.

The American Sign Language (ASL) Specialist Program will qualify people to teach ASL and thus requires higher proficiency than other degree programs.

A growing interest in sign language and deaf culture has led to an increase in the number of ASL courses at colleges and high schools across the country, said Rachel E. Stone, Western Maryland's first full-time deaf professor.

A 1997 survey found that most ASL teachers did not have proper training or certification to teach the language, she said via e-mail. Stone designed the new program to address that need.

"The ASL Specialist Program is the first of its kind and the only program to prepare professionals for this type of dual role," teaching those who use ASL as their first language and those for whom it is a second language, such as children of deaf parents, she said.

Western Maryland College not only has the largest number of graduate students -- more than 300 in its master's program -- but has also embraced the deaf-culture movement, Stone said.

Its program has evolved in three decades into the largest graduate program for teachers of deaf students, drawing students from France, Saudi Arabia, Finland, Korea, Brazil, Kenya, Australia and many other countries.

Gallaudet University in Washington -- the only liberal arts university in the world specifically for deaf and hard-of-hearing students -- has the most undergraduate deaf students.

It offers a proficiency program for interpreters of ASL and courses in linguistics, but not a degree program, said Roz Prickett, a spokeswoman at Gallaudet.

Stone studied art history and later taught at Gallaudet. She wasteaching there 10 years ago when the deaf-culture movement erupted into a campus strike that led to Gallaudet's first deaf president, then to wider acceptance -- and celebration -- of the view of deaf people as bilingual and bicultural members of a distinct minority group.

"ASL is our native language," Stone said through an interpreter.

"Historically, deaf students never have had the opportunity to learn their language, study their language and understand how their language worked. English was their only language in the classrooms," she said.

Especially since 1990, Stone said, Western Maryland has embraced the deaf-culture movement.

Gallaudet continues to have the largest undergraduate program, said Stone, but Western Maryland College has by far the largest master's degree program.

Prickett said Gallaudet has "closer to 100 students" in its master's and doctoral programs combined.

"You would think, 'Why Westminster?' " spokesman Donald W. Schumaker Jr. said of the Western Maryland graduate program.

Because the college was asked, he said.

Need identified in 1968

In 1968, he said, the superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf, David M. Denton, "approached the college saying, 'We need someplace to train our teachers to teach the deaf.' "

"That's more or less how we started, and it just grew," Schumaker said.

Denton, who retired in 1992, said he recalls his drive to the snow-covered campus in January 1968, and the radical changes that resulted, "as if it were five years ago."

When the North Carolina native had come to his job at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick a few months earlier, he found a shortage of teachers of the deaf. A rubella epidemic in 1963 and 1964 had increased the number of children born deaf.

Started with a handshake

Western Maryland came to mind for its strong teaching tradition, Denton said. He pitched his idea -- that the school begin training teachers for the deaf -- to college officials. They shook hands, and courses began that summer.

Their approach then was "total communication," he said, which included the use of sign language from birth. That staked out a then-revolutionary course against the dominant oral tradition, which did not teach sign language but focused on lip-reading and attempts to improve hearing.

"It was part of a whole movement that turned into really a revolution," said Denton. "The Western Maryland teacher preparation program was the institution that provided this cadre of young professionals, true believers.

"So this movement developed into a tidal wave across the country and abroad, and it goes on," he said. "Now, 30 years later, we can look back and see the impact that Western Maryland College has had."

Accepted deaf students

In another groundbreaking policy for the times, Western Maryland admitted deaf students from the beginning as candidates for the master's degree in deaf education, Denton and the college officials said.

Today, about 70 percent of the students in the deaf-education master's program are deaf, Schumaker said.

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