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Staff Essay: The treatment of Lincoln’s American Sign Language program reflects historical mistreatment of the language

Lola Kovel
Senior Magana Bancud fingerspells “A-S-L,” the acronym for American Sign Language.

We think the treatment of Lincoln’s American Sign Language (ASL) program reflects a larger issue of unfair treatment and delegitimization of the language throughout history.  

ASL was created in the early 1800s and uses hand and face movements to communicate with others. It is the primary language of many deaf and hard-of-hearing people living in the United States. Like other languages, ASL has its own grammatical structures and linguistic properties, as well as slang and contractions. 

According to Principal Peyton Chapman, Lincoln’s ASL program began eight years ago when teacher Ben Malbin was hired to teach it. Malbin now teaches ASL at McDaniel High School. Malbin studied Linguistic Anthropology at New York University, where he focused on learning Spanish, Mandarin and ASL. He was initially considered for a possible history or English position until he brought up his experience running a deaf theater in New York. Chapman then hired him to teach an ASL class at Lincoln. 

“We didn’t even know how many students would be interested, but we had always wanted to add it,” said Chapman. “[But when] he did a forecasting fair session, it was packed.” 

From the very start, the program was popular with students. 

“It helped boost our graduation rates. It was a really important part of our social justice course offerings,” said Chapman.

From 2017 to 2023, the ASL program continued its popularity, with participating students feeling a deep sense of community.

“There was a lot of love within everybody there, everybody felt seen and heard and respected,” says senior Magana Bancud, who took classes in the program for three years and is currently running Lincoln’s ASL club. 

The ASL club was started by Bancud and fellow seniors Ella Pool and Emerson Quarles after Malbin announced his departure from Lincoln last year. 

“[We started the club] mainly so people who were wanting to continue learning ASL or begin learning ASL would have the space where they could do that. Also [to continue] the ASL community at Lincoln because it was so close,” said Bancud. 

While Lincoln’s ASL community offered an opportunity for students to learn ASL, the language is not as widely accepted globaly compared to other languages. 

Throughout its history, sign language has faced opposition. In 1880, the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf declared that oral education was better than sign, which resulted in the banning of sign language in schools for the deaf across multiple countries. 

According to Gallaudet University’s National Deaf Life Museum, ASL wasn’t officially recognized as a language until the 1960s. In 1960, American linguist William Stokoe published his paper titled “Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf,” which caused a shift in thinking and perceptions about the language. 

Despite the official recognition, many still do not view it with the same legitimacy as other languages. 

“I think that the heart of it is that people don’t see it as a legitimate language,” said Malbin. 

The treatment of the ASL program at Lincoln reflects these issues. Malbin says students and teachers alike would ask him if the class counted as a language program. Due to the rigorous academics at Lincoln, it is not surprising that students are focused on completing credits, but we think asking this question also implies that ASL may not be a real language. Malbin says this lack of legitimacy is rooted in ableism.

“A lot of people infantilize deaf people and ASL. They’ll often say, ‘it’s so cute, that’s so sweet that you’re learning,’” said Malbin. 

This treatment threatens to undermine years of activism to legitimize ASL.

Lincoln’s ASL program was treated differently compared to other language programs in terms of forecasting. ASL was the only language program without an International Baccalaureate (IB) level. This limited IB diploma students who wanted to take the course but were unable to fit it into their schedules. In the past, there had been discussion of making an IB level of the class both within the Lincoln and greater IB community, but it ultimately fell through. 

Since Malbin announced his departure from the school, according to Chapman, the Lincoln administration has been looking for someone to take up his position. After originally posting the position as a halftime job, the school changed the job listing to full-time a few months later due to a lack of applicants. When this also proved unsuccessful, they reached out to all potential teaching candidates, including ones from Portland Community College (PCC) and past applicants to other Portland Public Schools (PPS) ASL programs. 

While there was no ASL program at Lincoln this year, students who are interested in taking the class in the future should not lose hope. According to Chapman, the school is planning on reposting the position this year during spring hiring, hopefully with more success.

Note: This article was edited on March 18, 2024.

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About the Contributors
Lola Kovel
Lola Kovel, Reporter
Lola is a senior this year. She is excited to write fun articles and explore the Lincoln community, and enjoys photography and photojournalism!
Contact by emailing [email protected] and put the reporter's name in the subject line.
Hildi Harrington
Hildi Harrington, Reporter
Hildi is a senior this year. She is excited to learn more about communications, and loves opinion articles!
Contact by emailing [email protected] and put the reporter's name in the subject line.

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