Today kicks off the first day of the International Week of the Deaf. Did you know that know that signed language linguists the world over know Albuquerque because of the pioneering work in signed language linguistics done at UNM? [Disclosure: this academic year I am a Visiting Scholar in the UNM Department of Linguistics Signed Language Interpreting Program.]
The theme of this year's International Week of the Deaf is "With Sign Language Rights: Our Children Can!" One of the ironies often noted in the signing deaf community is that children with species-typical hearing are encouraged to use signs to express themselves, but deaf children are frequently prevented from learning to sign because of a mistaken notion that learning a signed language will make it more difficult for that deaf child to acquire competency in a spoken language.
It is actually the opposite -- having one full, complete, natural language acts as linguistic scaffolding for future language learning. Even pediatricians are now getting on board with this.
Sometimes, common knowledge in one community is not accepted by those outside the community until it is well documented. (Consider the #BlackLivesMatter movement.) In the case of bilingual education for deaf children, the foundation rests on the research of signed language linguists. And the foundation for that rests on two National Science Foundation sponsored events took place at UNM in the summer of 1995, the Summer Linguistics Institute and the Linguistic Training of Signed Language Interpreters. These events brought distinguished deaf and hearing scholars and graduate students in signed language linguistics together from all over the world.
You see, in order to build a body of rigorous, peer-reviewed scholarship on a topic, one needs solid ground on which to build. (Yup, I'm sticking to the 'foundation' metaphor today -- you'll see why in a minute.) In the case of signed language linguistics, having people with native or near-native fluency in the language is critical. This usually (but not always!) means deaf people.
And here we run into some caliche.
Once you get past the challenge of figuring out funding for interpreters (always a frustration with an unfunded mandate like the ADA), the next issue is figuring out how you talk about it in American Sign Language (ASL). When there are just a few people working in a very specialized field around the world, and the internet isn't yet up to the challenge of using videoconferencing in signed languages (remember this is 1995), what happens is that each deaf signed language linguist is put in the position of creating an ASL sign for technical (English) vocabulary in linguistics.
But when you get these people together, then what?
The brilliant and visionary Professor Phyllis Perrin Wilcox conceived a response to this conundrum by writing a grant that would bring interpreters, signed language linguists, and ASL-English translators together to generate standard technical vocabulary for the field that would be used at the institute, and thereafter. This took place in the days before the Summer Linguistics Institute began.
As a deaf woman, she also anticipated a challenge that most conference organizers don't consider -- the issue of access to communication for the entire institute, since not all attendees were fluent in American Sign Language. As anyone who has ever attended a conference or workshop knows, the learning doesn't stop when the day's sessions end. In fact, sometimes, the best learning occurs at the bar after the formal program concludes.
Professor Wilcox envisioned a barrier-free institute that ensured communication access at all times, with interpreters sometimes working into the wee hours. This set the gold standard for deaf academics' expectations of what complete inclusion at conferences could look like.
Academic trend-setting -- here, in Albuquerque!
Of the 9 deaf graduate students to participate in the Summer Linguistics Institute, 7 went on to obtain Ph.D.s. They are now located all over the world, working in research that continues to benefit deaf people everywhere, including deaf children, who can indeed, succeed with sign language. Albuquerque's own ASL Academy is built on this bilingual foundation.
That's quite a foundation, and this is but one brick in the house that Professor Wilcox built. Last June, after 44 years at UNM, Professor Wilcox retired as professor emerita. On September 13, the UNM Linguistics Department put together a symposium in her honor.
In her own words:
I did not plan to build an interpreting program. I came to UNM to learn. Without any interpreters available, and only a few people in the city able to sign, the task of enrolling in university classes was daunting. In the face of tremendous adversity, I not only had to set up a program, but I had to convince the entire university that this was a field of real science. A few administrators through the years understood this drive, this thirst to become educated. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge at least three of the earlier advocates who joined my struggle to establish this emerging program: Dr. Lloyd Lamb, Dr. Joel Jones and Dr. Chris Garcia. Their vision and understanding balanced the often constant, subtle, invisible discrimination encountered while setting up the haven of communication that this program has become for deaf students now entering UNM.
Sometimes a foundation ends up supports more than just one building; sometimes it lends support to the world.