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ASL bill not enough for Gov. McDonnell on first go-round

When it was time to put pen to paper, Gov. Bob McDonnell balked—sending House Bill 1435, a popular bill on American Sign Language, or ASL, legislation, back to the drawing board.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Richard “Dickie” Bell (R-20), would allow ASL to be used as a high school foreign language credit and be accepted at state colleges. A class of students and their teacher dreamt the legislation up at Loudoun Valley High School, as the Times-Mirror reported in March.

HB 1435 blazed through Virginia legislature, cruising by the House in a 95-3 vote and surviving the Senate with a 34-6 victory. The speaker of the House put his signature on the bill Feb. 17, and the president of the Senate signed it Feb. 20.

All that was left was McDonnell’s signature.

“I don’t see any reason why the governor wouldn’t sign it,” Dawn Hitchens, the teacher whose class formulated the idea for the bill, said in March.

Bell was also adamant at the time that the bill would get by McDonnell.

“From everything I’ve heard, there’s been little opposition,” Bell said then. “We’ve had the support of some very powerful lobby groups, and I can’t think of any reason in the world why McDonnell wouldn’t sign it.”

But, according to Bell, HB 1435 is still in good shape, sent back to lawmakers for a veto session in order to enact small changes.

“The changes were mostly language changes,” Bell said. “That’s not anything to be too concerned about. The intent [and] integrity of the bill were not changed.”

A bill is born
The bill’s life began in April 2010 – a day in Hitchens’ ASL class at Loudoun Valley that started like any other. But then the conversation took a new turn, and the students began discussing how ASL wasn’t perceived on the same level as the power languages – Spanish, French and German – and how most of their preferred colleges wouldn’t accept ASL for their foreign language requirement. That forced them to take two language classes throughout high school.

“We were going into the whole thing, and one of my students’ hands went up – and she said, ‘Hey, let’s write it up,’” Hitchens said.

That student was Hollis Erickson. A three-year ASL scholar, Erickson had served as a Senate page in 2006 and felt the bill could make a difference.

“My friends and peers didn’t want to take ASL because they couldn’t get credit for it,” Erickson said. “We decided it was time to make a change.”

Hitchens put Erickson in charge of the project due to her experience as a page, and the class got to work.

The group began compiling statistics, facts and debatable issues, and clearing up any misinformation due to incorrect perceptions.

It took a couple of weeks for the class to get past this stage, but finally, they had a proposal.

Now, they just had to get it out to the world. By Nov. 4, 2010, Bell had gotten his hands on the idea and drafted the first version of the bill—which became HB 1435.

Back to the future
Despite the lack of a signature on the first go-around, Bell expects lawmakers to approve McDonnell’s minor changes in the next week—sending the bill back to the governor for that ever-powerful signature.

For now, Bell, Hitchens, Erickson and the rest of the class can only wait—wait for a day when their dream of putting ASL on a level playing field is finally realized.


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