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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Literacy and Deaf People: Cultural and Contextual Perspectives

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generally as well as an objective way to consider the culturally rooted developmental difficulties that underscore deaf children’s struggles in school. Cole describes a familiar kindergarten project, planting a seed in damp soil, keeping it in the dark until it sprouts, then placing it in the light to grow. If you leave the sprouting seed in the dark, the seed will stop developing and die; it cannot grow without sunlight. “Like a seed in soil, the human child must be provided with sufficient support to maintain life; it must be kept warm enough and fed, or it will die” (1996, 200).

While nasturtiums come prespecified to sprout leaves, human babies come with the need to live in a cultural world and the ability to acquire language. Babies born deaf also have this inborn capacity, but in most deaf babies, language does not take root. Because they cannot hear spoken language, the cultural medium that nourishes spoken language, which works perfectly for hearing babies, is not completely helpful for deaf babies. Babies who cannot hear spoken language require a somewhat different growing medium to acquire human language. (We also know that babies who have their sense of hearing boosted with technological devices will also need a growing medium that is fine-tuned to their needs, since they cannot take complete advantage of the medium that is designed for those with perfectly intact hearing.) In a “signed language growing medium,” culturally designed support rests on several centuries of problem-solving undertaken by people who also could not make use of spoken language. To our knowledge, only cultures of Deaf people provide this specific kind of support. Indeed, this is the truly unique feature of Deaf culture, and the one most worth educational consideration.

It is a mistake to think that deaf babies do not get culturally designed support in the “spoken language” medium. Of course, they do. But they simply cannot take advantage of it to use their inborn language capacity. The deaf child is included in numerous social interactions culturally mediated by spoken language—families eat together, babies go with others on errands or to church, they are toilet trained. As Cole notes, “They live in a world that is suffused with meaning, although they lack access to the specifically linguistic behavior that fills the gaps between actions” (1996, 202). Even so, like all children, deaf children have active minds that develop ways to represent the world. This is enough to allow a kind of participation with others in many activities; it is a myth that deaf children begin their educations with no communication ability and no knowledge of the world. But communication is not always language, and partial knowledge and access are not enough for typical language acquisition to occur. Language acquisition requires full access and participation. Unfortunately, children who do not have full access to their family’s language used in culturally organized contexts will not develop it, even if they can communicate and participate in some of the actions that occur in these contexts.


In evolutionary time, we got lucky. Over historical time, social groups made inventions and innovations and passed them on. This is what has made us who we are intellectually and made us very different from our closest primate relatives. But evolutionary and historical time are not right in front of us. Like geological time, these very long spans are difficult to imagine. What is in front of us are deaf children in their immediate time frame—their developmental time. Like all children, they should be able to depend on the pooled resources of others; and for most of their needs, they can. They enjoy the invention of devices that keep houses warm or cool, provide warm bath water and bubbles, cook food, produce entertainment, and print picture books. And they participate more or less willingly in social practices that keep them loved and adored, cared for, immunized against a variety of diseases, and treated for crooked teeth. Many even have access to devices that amplify sound or send pulses of electrical energy into their nervous systems. As cultural beings, deaf children

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