Archives » June 5th, 2003

June 5, 2003

The Great Sign Language Battle

Today is probably my wife’s last day at her job. On the surface, that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, since she works at an elementary school and today’s the last day of school. It wouldn’t be much of a story if that’s all there was to it. But it’s starting to look like she won’t be going back in the fall with everyone else. And that’s where things get complicated. Strap yourselves in, this is a long one.

Viola is a sign language interpreter with the school district. She works with the deaf kids in the elementary school, following them from class to class, interpreting for them, helping the kids interact with the teachers and other students, and tutoring them in the things they missed or didn’t understand. She never planned on working with kids, it’s just kind of something she fell into when her sign language teacher told her about a job opening. But now that she’s been doing it for a couple of years she loves it, and she doesn’t want to stop. There’s only one problem: she’s still a substitute. All interpreters have to start out at the bottom, as a substitute, and then they get hired on when there are job openings. Viola’s been trying to get hired on for two years, and it seems like every obstacle has been thrown into her path. The first time there was an opening, last year, she went up against one of the other subs for the job. Viola is much better at signing, but the other lady wasn’t as nervous during the interview. So she got the job, leaving Viola as a sub. Then, a few months later, there was another opening. They brought Viola in as the “full-time sub” to temporarily fill the position while they held interviews. Viola interviewed again, and did a lot better this time. She sat back and waited to hear the good news. In the meantime, she was basically working in the position, only with lower pay and no benefits. Weeks later, they still hadn’t hired anyone for the position. Viola was still going in every day, but she was getting tired of always being on the knife’s edge as a sub. She wanted the job! A few more weeks went by, and she heard the news: they weren’t going to be hiring anyone. It was too close to the end of the school year, so they were just going keep Viola as a “full-time sub” until school ended. “Oh, and by the way, a few of the deaf kids are leaving, so there won’t even be an opening in the fall.” Viola felt screwed over a second time, and worked out the school year as a sub.

That was last year. This school year, in the fall, there were no job openings. So Vi stayed on as a sub like she’d always been, working on-call whenever anybody was sick. They brought in a couple more subs, one of whom couldn’t sign worth anything, and the three of them had to rotate who got to be called in on any given day. Viola hated it. She had developed a relationship with the kids in the program, and she wanted to work every day, not just here and there.

Then a couple things happened all at once. First, she found out she was pregnant, and the first couple of months were really rough so she took some time off. Then, she found out that there was going to be another job opening coming up, since one of the interpreters had quit. Then, she found out that the other sub, the one who can’t sign worth anything, was given the “full-time sub” position. So she told her boss she was ready to come back, got some of the other interpreters to stand up for her, and fought for the “full-time sub” spot. She figured that whoever was in that spot was in the best position to get the job when it opened. And after a few weeks her boss agreed to give the full-time spot to her, and send the other lady back to occasional subbing. She didn’t go down without a fight, but Viola came out on top in the end. Thus, with the “full-time sub” position back in her possession, and a vacancy in the interpreter corps, she sat back to wait for the interviews to be scheduled.

And waited. And waited. She talked to the principal, who said the job would be opened any day now, and they’d be holding interviews. So she waited. And waited. All the time working in the position, with lower pay and no benefits. And then, in a mirror image of the year before, she heard that the school district wouldn’t be opening the job, because it was too close to the end of the year. Oh, well. She’s been there before. And this time no kids were leaving, so there would still be an opening in the fall.

Then she got the worse news.

Someone, I’m not sure who, but everybody I ask gives the vague answer “The State”, proclaimed that the Carson City School District would no longer be teaching S.E.E., but now they would be switching back to ASL. And on top of that, they will no longer hire anyone who is not a certified interpreter. This pretty much ends Viola’s career. Lemme explain.

In the world of sign language, there are two different languages. One is ASL, or “American Sign Language”, which is spoken by probably 95% of the population. I call it “Tarzan Sign Language” or “Neanderthal Sign Language”, because it’s basically a system of using nouns and verbs to give the person you’re talking to a vague impression of what you’re trying to get across. “Bed go me.” “Give that.” “Book read.” It has very little grammar, and one sign can mean a dozen different things, depending on the context. As a result, many people who are born deaf and learn ASL end up functionally illiterate, because they are never properly taught English. ASL children in schools need to be isolated within their own program, where they have test scores well below the average. Basically, ASL is not English, so ASL children have to be taught English as a second language, if at all.

In the 1970’s, a group of educators grew tired of that system and came up with S.E.E., or “Sign Exact English”. This is a system that maps English sentences directly to hand signs. It’s built from ASL, and it shares many signs, but at its heart it is the English language. Every word in a sentence is signed, and every word has its own sign. If you wanted to say something like “I want to go to the store,” in ASL you’d say “Store Go.” In S.E.E., there are seven signs to match up with the seven words. It follows English grammar and sentence structure. There are signs for prefixes and suffixes, like -ing and -s and posessives. There are signs for the little words, like a, the, at, to, in. Children who learn S.E.E. are able to be mainstreamed into the regular classes, with an interpreter helping them, because they’re working in the same language – English – as the other students. And their test scores consistenly fall in the normal range. Learning S.E.E. is the best way for deaf children to be able to join normal society.

The problem, though, comes from the outside. People who were raised speaking ASL hate S.E.E. with a venom. For one thing, it’s the new way, and they are very opposed to change. It’s harder to learn, there are more signs to remember, it takes longer to sign, it’s more complicated because of the grammar; they have all kinds of reasons why S.E.E. should be abolished. And because it has never been embraced by the deaf community, S.E.E. is making very slow progress. Many of the children who learn it in school will still use ASL at home, or after they graduate they’ll switch to ASL and never look back. The opposition to S.E.E. is so large that it will never become the dominant language, and it’s constantly in danger of dying out. In fact, many schools don’t teach it, either because the teachers are entrenched in ASL, or they don’t see any chance of the children using it after they graduate. So S.E.E. is forced to stay in the low percentages nationwide. It’s widespread in schools, but that’s it.

The Carson City School District is one place where S.E.E. has been embraced, largely because of the teacher, Lois Furno. She sees all the benefits of S.E.E., and so that’s all she teaches in both her elementary and secondary schools, as well as her college classes. It was in one of those college classes that Viola learned S.E.E., and it was through Lois that she got her job with the school district. But nowhere else in Nevada is S.E.E. taught. Even the other sign language teachers at the college use ASL. And, from what Viola is saying, it seems that the ASL proponents are winning locally and Carson City will be switched over to ASL as well. Don’t ask me about all the details; there’s too much internal politics for me, and not even Viola can get a straight answer about what’s going on. But if Carson switches to ASL, all of Viola’ s S.E.E. skills will be useless. She’ll have to go back to ASL, which she hasn’t studied in years. And when you add to that the fact that they will only hire certified interpreters – which it would take Viola a few years and dozens of ASL classes to get a certification – you can see that today may very well be her last day with the school district. So, I hope she enjoys herself and gets to say a proper goodbye to all the kids.

For more info on S.E.E., visit the S.E.E. Center website at To get a sense of the ASL vs S.E.E. battle, have a read through this thread.


The public domain petiton that I mentioned on Tuesday, which had 600 signatures, now has 9,000. Now that’s progress!!