It is a unique program offered by the Central Okanagan School District.
More importantly, it opens a window of communication and shared experience to the deaf and hard of hearing community, facilitated by hearing students enthused to make that connection.
The American Sign Language (ASL) program’s infancy began in 2002 as a student club initiative and has grown in the years since into a 17-class block initiative. Nothing else like it is offered in other B.C. public schools.
ASL is treated like any other high school language program – French, German, Spanish, etc. – and qualifies for post-secondary second language qualifications.
But what it has meant for the deaf and hard of hearing community has been profound.
“Deaf and hard of hearing children are different and tend to struggle socially and to make friends,” said Chelsea Thompson, who teaches ASL classes at Rutland Senior Secondary, speaking to trustees at the Central Okanagan Board of Education meeting Wednesday (Feb. 9).
She said as more students take the sign language courses, suddenly sign language evolves into “a cool and magical language” that builds empathy and sustainable friendships, overcoming the obstacle of hearing loss.
“Further to that an unexpected benefit has been the degree of self-confidence and pride of students feel learning sign language…the personal pride they feel literally learning a cherished skill in their hands…it is a powerful way of building community accessibility.”
For students who struggle to learn second languages, ASL becomes a viable alternative because it is learned through physical interaction, a visual learning context that many students feel more comfortable with.
Student Grace Mallette shared her ASL experience with the trustees, saying she enrolled in her first course last year and fell in love with it.
Before that, she encountered a young boy named Max in the kick-and-run soccer program she was working with who was hard of hearing.
“Max was this sweet little boy in the three to five year-old age group who was finding it hard to communicate with me and the other players,” she said.
“I took the ASL course initially to help him and his family out, but it actually helped me dramatically. I was able to take something I learned in class out into the community and it became a huge thing for me.”
Her involvement with Max has been a teaching lesson for her other students of the difference ASL can make in other people’s lives, and given the youngster the opportunity to better understand what is being asked of him in soccer and have a more fun experience.
Malaya Galigan, who has graduated high school and is a first-year interpretive language student at Douglas College in the Lower Mainland, said she took ASL courses in 2017, which unexpectedly led her into a chosen career option.
“Before I took the courses I did not know interpreters were a thing or how they worked…it led me to exposure to a career path for me and others in the program,” Galigan said.
She said the interaction with the deaf community also fosters collaboration, connection and provides a sense of support.
Trustee Wayne Broughton said his son takes ASL classes at Ecole Kelowna Secondary and is “super-excited” about what he is learning, now helping as a teacher assistant for ASL classes.
“I can’t tell you the number of times he has come home from school and wants to tell me what he learned. He has taught me so much about the language I did not know,” he said.
Kevin Kaardal, Central Okanagan Public Schools superintendent/CEO, said the ASL program has helped both open up accessibility for hard of hearing students to their schools, and teaching students about the hard of hearing culture expands their minds and will help them become better citizens as adults.
“Everything that has been done with this program is not happening anywhere else in B.C. schools is just incredible,” he said.
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