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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

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The issue of providing communication and language is made even more complex by the significant differences that exist between deaf and hard of hearing people. Approximately 13 million Americans have some measurable hearing loss, and 6.5 million have a bilateral loss (a loss in both ears). Demographers estimate that almost 500,000 Americans use ASL as their primary language and make up the Deaf community. That total is interesting in light of the number of people who speak other languages in the United States—approximately 400,000 speak French, 250,000 speak German, and 125,000 speak Yiddish.11

Individuals who lose their hearing at or just after birth are called prelingually deaf, and those who lose their hearing after developing language (usually after the age of two) are called postlingually deaf. Some prelingually deaf individuals rely exclusively on oral-aural language and have no signing skills at all. Other prelingually deaf people use only manual means of communicating. Some of these people use ASL, whereas others use signing systems developed to teach English to deaf children (e.g., Signed English and Signing Exact English). Still others communicate both orally and manually using English-based systems like Total Communication and Cued Speech.*

The number of people that use manual language (whether ASL or a signing system) or oral-aural language is hard to pinpoint. A survey during the 2002-2003 school year found that, of approximately 40,000 deaf and hard of hearing students, 18,237 (45 percent) were taught orally, 16,995 (42 percent) with speech and sign, and 3,753 (3 percent) with sign only.12 The Gallaudet Research Institute found in 1995 that, of 43,861 deaf and hard of hearing children, 41 percent were exclusively oral, 56 percent used some combination of speech and sign, and 1.9 percent used ASL; in 2000, 44 percent were exclusively oral, 49 percent used a combination of speech and sign, and 5.8 percent used ASL.13 During the 1999-2000 school year, less than 15 percent of students six to eleven years of age had cochlear implants; by the 2002-2003 school year, the figure was up to 22 percent, a significant increase with major implications for the future education of deaf and hard of hearing students.14

Educators, parents of deaf children, and Deaf adults have long argued over the best way to teach language to deaf children. Some say that exposure to and development of ASL is a prerequisite for the development of English skills and literacy, whereas others counter that literacy is best developed if deaf and hard of hearing children learn English orally or through an English-based signing system. Research increasingly shows that deaf children who develop a natural, manual language learn to read (and write) much like hearing children for whom English is a second language and that the development of a strong native linguistic base (whether oral or manual) is necessary for literacy growth.15

This communication debate has been raging for hundreds of years, with no end in sight. I make no attempt to suggest that one way is better than another. Ultimately, it is essential that parents understand the difference between a natural and formal language and signing systems, as well as the difference between all manual options and oral-aural language. All families should be fully informed and knowledgeable so that the best decisions can be made for the deaf or hard of hearing child. Regardless of the parents’ language-communication choice, all deaf and hard of hearing children should have access to what all other children in our nation take for granted—language and communication, the chance to develop English skills, and a rich educational environment in which they can communicate directly with their peers and teachers.

The need for communication and language illustrates the complex ways in which hearing loss is fundamentally different from any other disability. It underscores both the difficulties perpetuated by current law and policy and why communication and language access and development must become a right rather than an afterthought in our educational system. John Dewey said that “society exists in and through communication.”16 So it is for deaf and hard of hearing people.

* Signing systems, which are generally intended to be visual representations of English, are profoundly different from ASL. A sentence conveyed through an English signing system would in fact look very much like standard written English. Every English word would have a singular corresponding sign. For example, the sentence “Today I will run from my home to the park” would have a sign for each of those words and the order would the same as in spoken English. Using ASL, the signer would establish the place of the home and the park in the space in front of the body and would sign “me running” while moving the hands from one place to the other.

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