American Sign Language celebrates 200 years


Justine Ganatra, a DCCC sign language instructor, teaches her students American Sign Language, on April 18, 2017. Photo by Pavlina Cerna.

By Pavlina Cerna

For 20 weeks each semester since 1999, Justine Ganatra has been teaching American Sign Language as a non-credit course at the DCCC Marple campus.

Working as a full-time project manager, Ganatra gives sign language lessons in her spare time “for fun and for the joy of meeting new people.”

“I get such a variety of people here,” Gantra said. “I have had religious people, security people, police officers, physicians and famous people come in here. A few semesters ago, I had a radio personality here! I have had pregnant mothers that know that the child is deaf and learn to sign before the child is born.”

Ganatra became interested in ASL in college, when she took a graduate level class and later learned ASL at a variety of places, including Temple University, Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and Gallaudet University.

Ganatra, as many other lectors, is able to teach ASL thanks to the “American school for the Deaf ” that opened exactly 200 years ago.

Philadelphia born Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, together with aspiring deaf teacher from France, Laurent Clerk, and a physician Mason Fitch Cogswell, opened the first institution educating deaf and mute people on April 15, 1817. The school was called “Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons,” located in Hartford, Conn. Later, the institution was renamed the “American School for the Deaf.”

When Gallaudet met Alice, a daughter of his neighbour Cogswell, who had become deaf at the age of two, he was determined to educate her. Traveling to Europe to learn the best techniques for teaching deaf, he met Clerk and together they returned to the United States and opened the first American school for the deaf, where Alice was one of the first students.

The Asylum was essential for the creation of the American Sign Language. Until then, different areas had their own signs, but there was not a united sign language in the United States.

Although the United States Census Bureau “counts ASL speakers among those who speak English” because the formulas “used to capture languages spoken and English-speaking ability are not designed to identify American Sign Language users,” ASL is commonly said to be the fourth most-used language in the U.S. Nevertheless, no official data supports the claim.

According to World Federation of the Deaf, there are approximately 70 million people worldwide who use sign language as their mother tongue. The exact figure varies depending on whether people with hearing impairments are included.[Text Wrapping Break]The number of official sign languages existing around the world is estimated between 150 and 300, according to various sources. Sign language developed naturally and independently from spoken language and, just as spoken language, has its own dialects.

A committee of the World Federation of the Deaf attempted to create a universal sign language in 1973, called Gestuno. The name refers to the English word “gesture” and the Spanish word for “one.” Nevertheless, Gestuno is labeled as a system of signs and because it has no concrete grammar rules, it is not considered a real language by many people.

Jeffrey S. Bravin, a current director of the American school for the Deaf with currently 170 students, emphasized the importance of deaf role models in an interview with Comcast Newsmakers on Sept. 17, 2014. Being deaf himself, he speaks through an interpreter, Janice Knauth.

“Often when deaf children are born, they are the only deaf child in the family and they don’t meet deaf role models or deaf individuals,” Bravin said. “So I am hoping when they come to the American school for the Deaf, they will see a deaf person as the executive director of the school which shows them that deaf people can succeed.“

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights law that makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment against a qualified individual with a disability, yet many disabled individuals still meet with rejections from employers.

Kelly Dougher, a profoundly hearing impaired freelance writer and artist from Pennsylvania, described her struggle with finding a job on a deaf blog called “Limping Chicken” with more than 2500 members.

“I have been forced to find strategies that help me to adapt,” Dougher wrote. “My newest strategy? Stop mentioning my hearing loss in job interviews.” She wrote that many times she was not invited to an interview for a position she was qualified for because of her hearing impairment.

According to the National Deaf Center, 48 percent of deaf people had a job in 2014, compared to 72 percent of hearing individuals.

Deaf people questioned in a video interview for NDC titled “Deaf people and employment in the United States: 2016” expressed their frustration with employers who often do not know how to communicate with them, do not want to hire an interpreter, require them to do tasks they are not able to do or, on the contrary, do not let them do tasks they are capable of for thinking of them as too difficult. Many pointed out that there is a lack of experience working with deaf people and fewer opportunities.

A woman in the video whose name was not disclosed said, “They see that I am deaf and a girl and they think I cannot do the job.”

Nevertheless, Bravin believes opportunities for the deaf have increased and deaf students at his school can succeed.

“I started at McDonald’s, cleaning tables and I worked my way up and [children] need to see it, be assertive and know that with education they can move up and become successful leaders and productive citizens,” he said in the interview with Comcast Newsmakers.

As for Ganatra, she has been an inspiration for many of her students.

“I have five students that became sign language interpreters and four students who became teachers for the deaf and two who are in school for it now,” she said. “They let me know that I started them on their journey.”

Passing her knowledge to 13 students over this spring semester, she devoted the final class on April 18 to teaching curse words that she believes should not be taught on the beginning.

“I usually wait until the last night of last class and I teach any words that anyone wants to know,” Ganatra said.

Those interested in sign language course can register by calling 610-359-5025 or by filling out an application in Return to Learn brochures available at all campuses.

Contact Pavlina Cerna at

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