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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Human Right to Language: Communication Access for Deaf Children

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The class laughed at both Carl and the teacher, which gave Carol a chance to raise her hand. She signed rapidly, “I don’t understand, neurotic and unconscious, what were you saying about Hamlet?” Carol’s interpreter’s receptive skills—his ability to read signs—were not very good; he voiced to the teacher and class, “I don’t understand, neurology and conscience. What did Hamlet say?”

The teacher paused and asked the interpreter to repeat what he said. With five minutes left in the class, the teacher told Carol to carefully reread the scene where Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, dies. She then addressed the whole class. “So we see that Freud and the ancient Greeks and William Shakespeare share a good deal about the human psyche, and from them we learn much about ourselves. Just ask Carl. For tomorrow I’d like you to write a two-page essay on Hamlet, Macbeth, and Freud. See you tomorrow.”

As the students rushed out to their next class, the interpreter was signing to Carol, “G-e-r-t-r-u-d-e—Finish tomorrow H-a-m-l-e M-a-c-b-e-t-h F-r—”

Communication and Language and the Human Experience

communication and language are central to the human experience, and the ability and need to convey thoughts, feeling, hopes, and information defines the human species. It is as profound and simple as that. From Aristotle to Benedict de (Baruch) Spinoza to Dylan Thomas to Andy Warhol, philosophers and artists have understood that communication and language make our world intelligible and available to us.

A society exists whenever the members of a group can convey ideas to one another. Some call this “deliberate communication,” and its purpose is no less significant than to ensure that human beings are unified into one life and that the “development of the community as a continuous process of intercommunication and organization of experience” may proceed. Indeed, the “hypothesis of other minds would be untenable without the prior possibility of interpersonal communication.” Josiah Royce, a late-nineteenth-century philosopher, concluded that “without language . . . there would be no self.”2

Suppose we had no word for a strawberry or nausea or coffee or a tear or capitalism; no language to express gravitation or death; no way to communicate our understanding of, or confusion about, the relativity of time or why something makes us laugh. No way to convey, even partially, the feeling of love. Language is

not just some superficial part of human thinking. We are not just apes who have dabbled with some special communication trick. Language is totally integrated into every aspect of human mental functioning. We are linguistic savants, lightning calculators of semantic and syntactic arithmetic. . . . This rare and anomalous cognitive ability is thus one of the most robust and irrepressible characteristics of our species.3

We start, then, with this notion of the beauty, uniqueness, authority, and necessity of communication and language. We know without any proof that we must communicate and convey thoughts through language, or we cease to be human. And this is true for those with or without hearing, for those who rely on oral-aural language as much as for those who rely on visual language.

The Difference between Communication and Language

There are important differences between the concepts of communication and language. Communication refers to the general way in which humans convey thoughts, feelings, and ideas to one another. Communication can take the form of a smile, a punch to the nose, a written note, the celebratory dance of a football player, and tens of thousands of other conveyances. Communication is defined as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” Language is defined as “a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meaning.”

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