As Hawaii struggles to finish building the state’s football stadium, basketball stadium and about 20 arenas to support high school sports, Sign Language and small schools like Timpview High School in Orem, Utah, are fighting for their lives.
The number of professional sports teams signing on to the cause has grown, with the State of Minnesota announcing a plan for American Sign Language signs to be used on local broadcasts and in coaches’ broadcasts. But the work is also spreading from the professional ranks to the little leagues.
Signing player’s names is so ingrained in sports in this country that a full 25 percent of regular-season NFL games have been dubbed “Signing Night” since the NFL introduced the trend in 2007.
Signing trade teams can also translate the logos and cheerleaders into ASL as the NCAA tries to enforce its directive on organizations that make money off of sports to provide services to their deaf community.
That attitude, however, has been a problem in Hawaii.
Hawaii has no professional signing sports teams. For that reason it has 11 ASL-signing high schools.
Signing in the public eye as part of the flow of play was made mandatory by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1984. The amendment in the federal law was spurred by a lawsuit filed by the family of a deaf child.
Hawaii’s official ASL school contract states: “The intention of the Department of Education and the University of Hawaii in enacting this agreement is to identify, train, and provide opportunities for students of ASL to enroll in and complete a degree program at University of Hawaii.”
But as cultural importance for signing grows, so too does the focus on destroying the schools that educate both deaf and hearing students. The state wants them to close and make way for a new sports complex.
“There is absolutely nothing in the contract that says anything about giving signing students good opportunities,” said Oahu resident Carol Chouinard, who filed a complaint with the Department of Education last fall regarding campus-based education for deaf students. “It just makes room for them to sell out.”
The state board of education has begun an effort to close the ASL schools. In 2018 they applied for a grant to create a dormitory for Hawaii’s 16 deaf students to live on campus. They also released a policy mandating school to be closed.
Now all eyes are on the National Sign Language Association, which helped get the policy approved by the state board of education. The association plans to use its media department to go public with its argument that the schools should not be closed.
“There’s something to these schools. You can’t just take them out of the face of the state,” said NSLA Executive Director Julie Rodriguez. “I certainly don’t have any interest in supporting running a dying school. It’s not a healthy way to do things, and there’s a long-term, national effect of that.”
A number of schools in Hawaii have been challenged with litigation, including the Como-Salt Lake International School, as well as Timpview, which was the first Hawaii school to seek an ICD-10-6 federal certificate from the State of Utah. It’s the only university in the U.S. that has an oral interpreter on staff for student signers. It also has to send thousands of dollars in letter writing to educational services to collect special education funding for students who are ASL and TSL students. The one bright spot for the school is its faculty of communication instructors. They are a vital part of the ASL community.
“They are incredible, like a hidden gem,” said Cheyenne Heyward, an ASL school coordinator with the World Taekwondo Federation of America who organizes its schools worldwide. “They work so hard at bringing in ASL teachers into their schools. The fact that they don’t do the same for TSL students is infuriating.