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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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Humans communicate and employ language. Deaf and hard of hearing individuals communicate in as many varied ways as hearing individuals. They communicate through written, oral-aural, and manual modes. They employ language as hearing individuals do, whether it be English or ASL.4

If communication and language are central to our being, then it follows that our institutions, our laws, our Constitution, must recognize those values as well. Our democracy insists on our freedom, and our freedom depends on the free flow of information, on the exchange of thoughts through language. The need to access information, to have our say, to appreciate what others think and communicate, is central to our democracy and to our growth as individuals.

International law recognizes the importance of language and the right to it. Article 27 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that linguistic minorities shall not be denied the right to communicate with members of their community. This right creates an obligation to protect the identity and to ensure the survival and continuous development of linguistic minorities.5

The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights acknowledges the right to be part of, and to be recognized as a member of, a language community; the right to use one’s own language both in private and public; the right for one’s language and culture to be taught (Article 3); the right to acquire knowledge of one’s own language (Article 13); and the right to an education that will enable the members of a language community to gain full command of their own language (Article 26). The declaration also recognizes that the rights of all language communities are equal (Article 5).6 The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, or Linguistic Minorities calls for states to provide opportunities to “receive instruction in their mother tongues.”7 Finally, the Hague Recommendations regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities suggest that education should be provided in a child’s language and that a minority language should be taught as a subject on a regular basis.8

These conventions recognize that there is a significant connection between language and human dignity, that these rights must be protected not by other individuals but by governments, and that it is not “enough if the state only assumes an obligation not to interfere with” the linguistic development of children—the state in fact has a duty to enhance the right itself.9 Many countries have taken steps and assumed these duties. South Africa recognizes sign language as an official language in school, and Uganda includes sign language in its constitution. Denmark and Sweden have long provided extensive sign language school programs.10 Our government should have a similar duty, so that deaf and hard of hearing children do not continue to be subject to laws and policies that, consciously or otherwise, interfere with rather than support their language rights. Our Constitution cannot continue to be merely neutral; it must affirmatively protect this right.

Deafness and Communication and Language

Hearing loss and its linguistic implications are profound. Many, if not most, hearing people assume that greater amplification will resolve a hearing problem. They have little understanding or even awareness that though some deaf people develop oral-aural skills, many use a viable and formal visual language that conveys thought as fully and effectively as spoken language.

Most hearing people cannot imagine living without sound. Yet many deaf people have told me that they would not become hearing even if they could, because their language, culture, and community are rich in things that hearing people don’t have. It is a worthy point to be respected and understood and to consider within the context of the importance of, and the right to, communication and language.

Deaf and hard of hearing children are fully capable of developing and using language and of communicating. However, their needs for special accommodations to access language and communication, in whatever mode or language they use, are different from those of almost every other so-called disability group that the law and educational policy and programs address. All other children with disabilities, whether they are blind, use wheelchairs, or are developmentally delayed, can hear the teacher and their classmates. They know what is being said in the classroom just by being present. Deaf and hard of hearing children do not.

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