Bill passes requiring sign language students receive credit

Posted at 10:51 AM, May 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-01 11:10:17-04

The Tennessee Legislature passed a measure that will now require, instead of just encourage, that students who take American Sign Language be given credit for their foreign language requirements.

Tennessee passed a law allowing kids to take ASL for credit back in 1990, but it was never implemented, said Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, and one of the bill's main sponsors. Now, she said it will be. The legislation requires the State Board of Education to create policies on how to implement the program.

"Current law only encourages ASL to be accepted as a foreign language, but did not require it to be accepted," Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said in an email. "The new law will require it."

It doesn't necessarily mean that sign language is automatically going to be taught in every school around the state, Massey said. Big school systems, she said, will probably start first.

A legislative cost analysis of the bill said it's not clear how much it would cost local schools to provide the classes or if Board of Education rules would require every district to do so. There are also questions about whether costs of the program could be offset by using money for existing foreign language classes to pay ASL courses.

There are approximately 500,000 Tennesseans who are deaf or hard of hearing and many use ASL to communicate, Massey said. There is great demand for sign-language interpreters, knowing ASL is a marketable skill, she said.

More than 40 states have passed similar measures around the country, said Russell Rosen, an assistant professor and coordinator of the ASL Program at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York.

"That an increasing number of states recognize and permit ASL to be taken as a foreign language is testament to their recognition of the existence of deaf community and culture, the increased rights of deaf people, and the increasing desire of hearing people to learn it and embark on careers working with the deaf," Rosen, who is deaf, said in an email.

Gov. Bill Haslam still has to sign the bill. An email to a spokeswoman for Haslam was not immediately returned.