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Harvard’s Not-So-Quiet Embarrassment

By David Lynch

Two Saturdays ago, April 15, was National American Sign Language Day, a day that commemorates the 1817 establishment of the first school designed specifically for deaf students in the United States. This day embraces the often forgotten culture of the deaf, a people whose history—and current situation—consists of discrimination, isolation, and harassment.

Just this past September, Alex Hernandez, a deaf senior high school student in Nebraska, was severely bullied; two students dumped the school supplies, debit card, and cochlear implants in his backpack into a toilet, leaving him helpless during school hours. Ultimately, fellow students and, eventually, the internet, showed compassion for Alex, but these stories are all too common—especially for the deaf community.

In order to prevent more tragedies like Alex’s, the unique needs of the deaf must be recognized. Teaching American Sign Language to those who can hear is an important first step not only because it increases the hearing population’s ability to communicate with deaf people, but also because it allows them to understand the often-ignored struggles that deaf people face on a daily basis.

Thankfully, many schools across the country and in the Boston area have promoted ASL’s importance by legitimizing it academically. Boston University and Northeastern are among these, each offering potential degrees in deaf studies and hosting a multitude of events specifically designed for interactions between the hearing and the deaf. By recognizing deaf language and culture as a worthwhile academic pursuit, these schools have put their backing behind those who cannot hear.

Harvard has not.

Although Harvard offered introductory American Sign Language classes for the first time this year, the College still refuses to recognize ASL as a real language by not permitting sign language to fulfill the mandatory language requirement. Harvard argues that, for a language to fulfill this requirement, it must have “a written component.”

At its core, the purpose of language is communication and doubting a people’s language merely because one cannot “write it” is fundamentally discriminatory. By instilling within students’ minds that ASL is a fun elective but not a legitimate language due to its failure to have a stereotypical “written component,” Harvard is essentially claiming that those who use American Sign Language are not actually using language. Harvard is positioning itself as an institution that, on the whole, does not see ASL as a “proper” form of communication.

But in reality, 100,000 to 500,000 Americans use ASL as their primary language. The argument that ASL is simply a “derivative” of English is also incorrect, as ASL is a complex language with its own unique syntactical and grammatical structures. Furthermore, deaf people have a drastically different culture from the hearing, with their own abundant literature (as a simple YouTube search will prove). ASL studies thus have the possibility to adhere to the academic norms that are often associated with other linguistic studies.

The purpose of the language requirement is to inspire students to think about the meaning of communication and to learn how to communicate in a new way. As one of the students in the new ASL class, I can confidently say that, through this course, I have challenged myself academically in an unprecedented manner. Not only have I garnered an understanding of a language that communicates in a medium like none other, I have also had the incredibly rewarding experience of learning ASL from a deaf professor. In addition, I have gained insight into a community that is largely ignored in regular academic settings. This is the true purpose of learning another language: to gain a new toolset that allows you to answer challenging problems in a new fashion and converse with those who are different from you. New languages permit you to explore your intellectual boundaries in extremely innovative ways, a feat that, no doubt, ASL allows for.

Harvard needs to end its prejudice towards the deaf community and eliminate its outdated view of language. Students who pursue ASL for a year should have the opportunity to utilize these linguistic studies to fulfill the language requirement. Any other solution is simply insulting to the deaf community and a huge embarrassment for the school. It’s time for Harvard to finally listen—and not just with their ears.

David Lynch ’20 lives in Thayer Hall.

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