Signs of the Times


It’s the sixth most commonly used language in the United States, and it carries with it a rich cultural heritage as well as a complex linguistic structure that some have compared to spoken Japanese. American Sign Language (ASL)—a system that relies on hand gestures, facial expressions, and postures—is used by some 500,000 Americans. Beginning this fall, ASL is being offered through Drake’s World Languages and Cultures.

Two introductory courses are being offered in 2013-2014 thanks to the Farr Fund for American Sign Language, established by Marilyn H., GR’66’76, and Charles E. Farr. The Farrs sought to expand ASL offerings in central Iowa, filling what they recognized as a gap in the Des Moines community.

Now Drake is helping fill this void by enabling students with little or no background in ASL to expand their linguistic and cultural competencies. Marc Cadd, director of World Languages and Cultures, associate professor, and department chair, says that student response confirms the need for such an offering.

“Before we listed the course for registration, students were talking about how interested they were. The courses filled almost immediately,” says Cadd. “Students also saw how an ASL offering supplemented their other programs. Pharmacy students were excited to learn how to better communicate with deaf clients.”

Students in these courses are introduced to ASL syntax, grammar, and idiomatic usage in addition to other key elements of ASL communication such as facial expression and posture. In both courses, as well as a third on deaf culture, students will come away with a deepened understanding of what it means to be “big D” Deaf—a person with hearing loss who identifies as culturally deaf.

Courses are taught by Polly Fullbright, dean of students for the Des Moines Public Schools’ Deaf Education Program at Capitol View Elementary School and leader of the district’s deaf and hard-of-hearing programs. Deaf her whole life, Fullbright lip-reads and speaks while signing but is also aided by an interpreter in class.

“We haven’t separated ASL from the culture part of the deaf experience,” says Cadd. “By not only learning ASL but learning from someone who happens to be deaf, they will go much further toward breaking down misconceptions and barriers. It really is new territory, and it’s very exciting.”

Students in an introductory course in American Sign Language, taught by adjunct instructor Polly Fullbright, sign along with “The D Song”.

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