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College Offers MSc in Sign Language

WESTERN Maryland College, which has the world's largest graduate school programme in deaf education, is adding a new programme this month offering the first master of science degree in American Sign Language.

The American Sign Language, or ASL, Specialist Programme will qualify people to teach ASL and thus requires higher proficiency than other degree programmes.

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 programme to address that need.

"The ASL Specialist programme is the first of its kind and the only programme to prepare professionals for this type of dual role," she said.

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

Its programme has evolved in three decades into the largest graduate programme for teachers of deaf students, drawing students from France, Saudi Arabia, Finland, South 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 programme for interpreters of ASL and courses in linguistics, but not a degree, said Roz Prickett, a spokeswoman at Gallaudet.

Stone studied art history and later taught at Gallaudet. She was teaching 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 learn their language, study their language and understand how their language worked. English was their only language in classrooms," she said.

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

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

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

"You would think, `Why Westminster'?" spokesman Donald W. Schumaker Jr said of the Western Maryland graduate programme. Because the college was asked, he said.

In 1968, he said, the superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf, David M. Denton, "approached the college saying, `We need some place 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 Jan 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, Maryland, a few months earlier, he found a short-age of teachers of the deaf. A rubella epidemic in 1963 and 1964 had increased the number of children born deaf.

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 programme 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."

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% of the students in the deaf-education master's programme are deaf, Schumaker said.

To enter Western Maryland's graduate programme in deaf education, a student must pass an ASL proficiency interview with a score of at least 2.0 on a scale of zero to five, based on a 20-minute videotaped interview with a deaf person. To graduate with a master of science in deaf education, students must score at least a 3.0 on the proficiency test.

The new ASL Specialist programme will train deaf and hearing graduates to even higher fluency in ASL - four on a scale of zero to five - and has been approved by the Council on Education of the Deaf and the Maryland State Department of Education.

Registration for the programme opened on April 1 - and was full two days later. - LAT- Washington Post News Service

The Star, July 19, 1998.