LOGAN, Utah (ABC4) – When Savannah Sparks graduated with her Bachelor’s from Utah State University (USU) in 2021, she had one goal in mind: pursuing her Master’s in Deaf Education as part of the school’s American Sign Language/Bilingual-Bicultural (ASL/Bi-Bi) Education program. Sparks, who was born deaf, was given the resources to learn both ASL and English as a child, and because of the profound impact knowing both languages has had on her life, she knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a career as an advocate for the Deaf.

When she tried to apply for the 2021/22 academic year, Sparks was told the program was full, so she waited a year to submit her application. Instead of getting her acceptance letter, though, she received word through the grapevine of the program’s suspension.

“This was my plan. I put my life on hold for a year because of this [program],” Sparks says. “We’ve heard some rumors about Utah Valley University, they’re thinking of starting one, but that’s going to take years and I don’t want to wait years to get into a program and finally start my career.”

On January 5, Alan Smith, Dean of USU’s Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, announced the indefinite suspension of the ASL/Bi-Bi program, with the caveat that current students will still be able to finish. The last graduates will emerge in the spring of 2023.

According to a statement released by the university, the decision was motivated by a lapse in accreditation status that prompted an internal review of the program.

“This review showed that the program track was not operationally sound, preventing us from offering the high-quality education expected at Utah State University,” the statement elaborates.  

The impact of this decision, though — according to USU students, Utah’s Deaf community, and Utah’s Deaf educators — could be catastrophic.

Michelle Tanner, superintendent of the Deaf at Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, says that USU’s program is one of the only programs like it in the country. The curriculum takes a bilingual-bicultural approach to developing the next generation of Deaf educators, providing students with coursework in Deaf culture, and honing their ASL skills until they are bonafide experts in the language.

Students and educators at Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, photo courtesy of Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind

And although the University of Utah is also home to a Deaf Education Master’s, Tanner says, without the bilingual-bicultural approach to the curriculum, the program does not produce graduates that sign well enough to put them in an ASL English classroom.

Tanner says she hires the teachers working at Utah’s Deaf schools almost exclusively from the USU ASL/Bi-Bi program. Because of this, suspending the program would drastically impact the already short supply of qualified teachers needed to work with Deaf students.

“The nation as a whole in Deaf education has a shortage of teachers,” Tanner explains. “The main problem with this decision that’s made at a university is they don’t actually get to see the faces of the children. I do. This haunts children, and children that are often the most vulnerable.”

Tanner says that — even if the program does return in the future — having a gap of qualified teachers for even a few years could dramatically impact the education of Utah’s Deaf students, who require somewhere between a 1-5 or 1-10 teacher to student ratio.

And indeed, the impact a qualified educator can have on a Deaf student is profound. Dereck Hooley, a member of Utah’s Deaf community who grew up with teachers who were graduates of USU’s ASL/Bi-Bi program, credits the program with developing him into the man he is today.

“That program is the reason of who I am now,” Hooley told ABC4.com. “It helped me understand the world, helped me understand things around me, helped me to have a good job, to be an example, tell me that I could do it, show me that I could do it.”

At the beginning of his professional career, Hooley worked for a construction company helmed by a fellow Deaf man. After many years working in the industry though, he was ready for a change and was hoping to enter USU’s ASL/Bi-Bi program himself. Now, he might not be able to.

“Because I know exactly what Deaf people need, I wanted to come here and be in this program,” he says. “I’ve been involved in the Deaf community, and I want to be able to share and see and help people know that they’re not alone and encourage them. I wanted to change that for my career.”

And, aside from his own career and experiences, Hooley echoes Tanner’s sentiments in saying that the shock waves of this decision will reverberate across the entire Deaf community, in Utah and beyond.

“Partnering with the Deaf people with that Bi-Bi program, having the culture, being able to sign, being able to have all that together, ASL and the culture are just combined, you have to know both,” he explains. “So, if you cut that off, that will impact me and the Deaf community, especially the children in that community.”

Deaf community members, advocates and ASL/Bi-Bi students before meeting with Dean Alan Smith of USU’s Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, photo courtesy of Mykel Winn

And, in addition to the impact on the Deaf, USU students are affected by the decision, too.

For Emma Cole, a USU senior who is on the ASL/Bi-Bi Deaf education track, the program is what compelled her to seek out USU. Ever since she grew close with a childhood friend’s sister and father — both of whom are Deaf — and recognized her love for working with children, Cole know she wanted to pursue ASL education as her career. As she searched for schools that offered the correct emphasis, she found only two, one at Gallaudet University — a Washington, D.C.-based institution for the Deaf — and USU.

But because, for some students, the Bachelor’s track of the program feeds directly into the Master’s — and Cole has not yet finished her Bachelor’s — she won’t be able to complete to program.

And although USU also provides a Listening and Spoken Language (LSL) Master’s — which focuses more on educating future teachers to provide Hard of Hearing students with the skills to develop spoken language, as opposed to teaching them with sign language — Cole says this program just isn’t a substitute.

“Personally, I am opposed to Listening and Spoken Language, because it is revolving around making the Deaf child use their hearing, which is the one sense they don’t have,” she explains. “It’s the one thing they can’t do.”

The LSL program will not be suspended.

And, Tanner says that — though LSL programs and the teachers they generate are important — she does not have a deficit of qualified LSL graduates to teach classes.

But, all may not be lost. Although the ASL/Bi-Bi program is small — it only graduates about 5 students each year, according to USU — the community it has created is mighty. Since the decision was announced, ASL/Bi-Bi students and Utah’s Deaf have banded together to speak up and make their voices heard.

Cole started a petition that has garnered nearly 6,000 signatures thus far. And, on February 8, a group of concerned students and community members — including Cole, Sparks, Hooley, and Hooley’s younger sister, Mykel Winn — met with Dean Smith to voice their concerns. The group told ABC4.com that Smith was very respectful and responsive, so they are hopeful about the future of the program, yet still concerned about the lack of a clear timeline on part of the university.

“We really, really cherish this program and we recognize it as the beginning of that starting block [for Deaf students.] So if we cut that off, the family dies, the community dies,” Hooley says. “That’s why we’re fighting, to show those people on top how important it is to keep the program and we are willing to help fix that if they’re willing to listen to us.”