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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Human Right to Language: Communication Access for Deaf Children

Lawrence M. Siegel

Chapter Two
The Importance of Communication and Language

Language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is a great and efficient instrument in thinking.
                                                                              —Sir Humphry Davy
Carol was a bright, lively young girl with an easy-going personality and a keen interest in horses. She did well in school and enjoyed literature and math. Others saw her as calm and strong, so much so that they were unaware of her isolation. She had some residual hearing, and if she was in a quiet room and one person spoke clearly and slowly, she could discriminate some of what was being said. If that dynamic shifted even a bit, if the speaker turned away, if noise came from somewhere else in the room, if another sixteen-year-old dropped a book or asked the teacher a question—in short if there was more than one clear, distinguishable, and direct expression of language—Carol was lost.

When she was younger and language was at a relatively simple level—one- and two-word expressions, language of limited vocabulary—Carol’s classmates would try to communicate with her. They would slowly mouth “hello” or “Do you want to go outside at recess?” but children will not long tolerate a lag in response. One of Carol’s early teachers taught the class rudimentary signs—Hello, how are you? What is your name?—and for a while the students used these signs, but it was a superficial, stagnant mode of communicating, and the signs were soon forgotten.

By the third or fourth grade, at a time when socialization becomes more complex, Carol began to feel more isolated from her classmates. It was not that they were unkind; they just tended to ignore her. Her exchanges with other students went from occasional to infrequent to rare. She did her homework during lunch and recess. She played soccer, but was never invited to anyone’s house after school, on the weekends, or in the summer. No one consciously chose to exclude her; she just did not really exist. In return, she did not bother anyone; she simply stayed out of reach.

Carol had an interpreter for her academic high school classes, including English. The interpreter tried, but he was paid by the hour, he was not certified, and his vocabulary was incomplete, which meant that he often relied on fingerspelling.* He did his best but was always behind. He had two different responsibilities: (1) to convert spoken language into sign language for Carol and (2) to convert Carol’s sign language into spoken language for the class.

One day, the teacher began the class by saying, “Some people think that Shakespeare and Freud had a lot in common. What do you think?”

* In ASL, the English alphabet is represented by handshapes for all the letters, A to Z. For example, the word America has a sign, but it can also be fingerspelled letter by letter: A-m-e-r-i-c-a. Unqualified interpreters sometimes leave out actual words and phrases, and they may misspell words (e.g., Shakespear). Thus the amount of information denied to deaf and hard of hearing students can be substantial.

† It is vital that the reader take the time to experience the entire classroom exchange. It is not easy to read the simultaneous discussions, just as it clearly was not easy for Carol to follow them in class. Numerous deaf colleagues and friends have indicated that the vignette is a powerful and realistic example of the isolation they feel.

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