Law promoting sign language gets final OK

Alyx Duckett and Kayla Wamsley

Capital News Service

Public high schools, colleges and universities in Virginia must accept American Sign Language toward fulfillment of foreign language requirements under a bill that received final approval by the General Assembly last week.

House Bill 1435 says high schools must “count completion of an American Sign Language course toward the fulfillment of any foreign language requirement for graduation.” Moreover, such courses “shall be counted toward satisfaction of the foreign language entrance requirements of a public institution of higher education in the Commonwealth.”

The General Assembly had passed the bill in February during its regular session in February. But Gov. Bob McDonnell recommended minor edits in the wording. On Wednesday, when legislators held their “reconvened session,” they approved the governor’s recommendations.

Under a 1998 policy by the Virginia Department of Education, high school students could use American Sign Language classes to fulfill foreign language requirements to graduate. However, college admissions officials did not have to accept American Sign Language as a foreign language credit.

HB 1435, proposed by Delegate Richard P. “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, strengthens the education agency’s policy and makes it a state law. It will take effect July 1.

Students enrolled in an American Sign Language course at Loudoun Valley High School, in the town of Purcellville in Northern Virginia, contacted Bell with the idea for the bill.

“They were the inspiration for it. And when they contacted me looking for a sponsor for the bill, I thought it was a wonderful idea, so we became partners,” Bell said.

In February, HB 1435 passed in the House 95-3 and in the Senate 34-6.

“The bill received amazing bipartisan support in the General Assembly,” said Bell, whose district includes the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton.

He said the legislation will remove some of the barriers that deaf and hard-of-hearing students face in applying to colleges and universities. Bell also said the law provides new opportunities for high school students to learn about deaf people and sign language culture.

Virginia Tech, Radford University, the University of Virginia, VCU and George Mason University are among the schools that already offer American Sign Language as a foreign language credit.

VCU offers two American Sign Language courses through the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling.

“I think the most important thing about the bill’s passage is the fact that it improves access to higher education for a lot of people,” Bell said. “It breaks down barriers between cultures, and it improves the ways we can communicate.”

Bell said the Loudoun Valley High School students also benefited by learning about the legislative process as their idea worked its way through the General Assembly.

“Just as important, perhaps, is the civics lesson taught to this high school class who had an opportunity to participate first-hand in the process of seeing their good idea become law,” Bell said.

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