MC seniors again instrumental in ASL-related legislation

MC seniors again instrumental in ASL-related legislation

March 15, 2018

They knew they couldn’t stop at the high schools.

After seeing passage last year of their bill allowing American Sign Language (ASL) to fulfill foreign language requirements for high school graduation in Tennessee, Maryville College seniors Josh Anderson ’18 and Molly Ridgeway ’18 set out to make sure the state’s institutions of higher education would accept ASL as a foreign language credit for the purposes of admission to their undergraduate degree programs.

Signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam on March 9, Senate Bill 1514 “requires the board of regents, each state university board, and the board of trustees of the University of Tennessee to adopt policies allowing American sign language courses to satisfy foreign language requirements for undergraduate degree programs by July 1, 2019.”

Ridgeway said that without this bill, students might have taken ASL and successfully completed requirements for graduation from high school, but they might not have met the foreign language requirement needed for admission to their college of choice. Maryville College, which developed the first bachelor’s degree program in interpreting for ASL, spoken English and English-influenced forms of sign language in the United States in 1974, has long accepted ASL as fulfillment of the foreign language requirement but many state universities have not.

“We were happy to work with stakeholders in the Tennessee higher education community, particularly the governmental affairs team from the University of Tennessee, to ensure that the final version of the bill successfully accomplished the mission we set out to achieve,” Ridgeway said.

Ultimately, Ridgeway and Anderson want to see “this language make its way into Tennessee schools.” Ridgeway is non-verbal and uses ASL to communicate. Majoring in child development and learning with teacher licensure, she hopes to teach ASL in Tennessee schools and continue to advocate for children with disabilities.

Legislation has origins in TISL

It was in the Tennessee Intercollegiate Student Legislature (TISL) where Ridgeway and Anderson, a political science major, saw opportunities to make laws that would make ASL more accessible to Tennessee residents, thereby benefitting more than 500,000 Tennesseans who are Deaf or hard of hearing and use ASL as their primary form of communication.

As members of Maryville College’s delegation to TISL in November of 2016, the two wrote a bill advocating for the Tennessee State Board of Education to implement ASL textbooks and curriculum and allow this course to satisfy foreign language requirements in Tennessee schools. With overwhelming support from the General Assembly of TISL and the TISL governor, it was flagged as priority legislation that should be forwarded to the actual Tennessee State Legislature.

After the MC students met with Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) and Rep. Roger Kane (R-Knoxville), the elected officials filed Senate Bill 524 and House Bill 462 in early 2017. Ridgeway, Anderson and American Sign Language-English interpreting major Sarah Gregory ’18 traveled to Nashville to advocate for the bills’ passage through committees. Members of the Tennessee General Assembly voted for Senate Bill 524 unanimously on April 24, 2017, and Haslam signed it into law on May 4.

“The original ASL bill was very helpful in educating members of the public and the legislature about American Sign Language and in building a great coalition of support in ensuring that this initiative continue forward until ASL is fully available to Tennessee students,” Ridgeway said.

Support for bill was strong

For this most recent bill related to higher education, Ridgeway and Anderson went back to Duncan Massey and Kane to ask for their sponsorship. They agreed.

“Their commitment to seeing that ASL be implemented into Tennessee schools is unwavering, and they have been key in the success of this legislation. As Representative Kane ends his tenure in the legislature to pursue running for local office, we especially thank him for his service on this initiative,” Ridgeway said. “Sen. Art Swann (R-Maryville) has also been very supportive of this legislation, serving both as a House co-sponsor for the original ASL bill, and as a Senate co-sponsor on the higher education bill. Sen. Swann especially has a special place in his heart for this issue, as his wife has worked for many years in the field of Deaf education.”

The legislation sailed through committees and made it to votes on the Senate and House floors in a little more than a month from introduction. Both chambers voted unanimously for passage.

Ridgeway and Anderson said they also have felt the “enthusiastic support” of many members of the faculty and the Maryville College community. As they prepare to graduate from the College in May and marry in June, they said their days spent inside the capitol building may have just begun; they expect to be involved in writing more ASL-related legislation in the near future.

“We have found that it is important for citizens to practice due diligence about issues in government that are important to them,” Ridgeway said. “It is entirely possible for a few individuals to take an idea and make it a reality in the governmental processes. Sometimes, implementing an idea into policy takes time and may require more legislation to sort out other issues, but citizens shouldn’t give up. It can be done!”


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2017 semester is 1,181.