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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language Policy and Planning for Sign Languages
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The literature on deafness now commonly identifies two quite different ways to view deafness (see Baker, 1999; Benvenuto, 2005; Branson & Miller, 2002; Corina & Singleton, 2009; Janesick & Moores, 1992; Kyle, 1990; Lane, 1992; Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan 1996; Lindgren, DeLuca, & Napoli, 2008; Mather, 1992; Padden & Humphries, 1988, 2005; Reagan, 1988, 1990a, 1995a, 2002c, 2005b [1985]; Senghas & Monahgan, 2002; Skelton & Valentine, 2003). The dominant perspective is grounded in the view that deafness is essentially a medical condition, characterized by an auditory deficit—that is, deaf people are people who cannot hear. Such a perspective, which has been labeled the “pathological” or “medical” view of deafness, leads naturally enough to efforts to try to remediate the deficit. In short, the pathological view is premised on the idea that deaf people are not only different from hearing people, but, at least in a physiological sense, are also inferior to hearing people. If one accepts the pathological view of deafness, and the myriad assumptions that undergird it, then the only reasonable approach to dealing with deafness is indeed to attempt to remediate the problem—which is, of course, precisely what is done when one focuses on the teaching of speech and lipreading or speechreading in education, utilizes technology such as hearing aids and cochlear implantation to maximize whatever residualhearing a deaf individual may possess, and otherwise seeks to develop  medical solutions to hearing impairment. In other words, the pathological view of deafness inevitably leads to efforts to attempt to assist the deaf individual to become as “like a hearing person” as possible. Such a perspective is common in general in the hearing world, and, perhaps most importantly, among hearing parents, who “typically view being deaf through the lens of audiology, hearing loss, and difference, not as a cultural phenomenon” (Leigh, 2008, p. 23).

The alternative way of understanding deafness has been termed the “sociocultural perspective” on deafness. This view of deafness operates from an anthropological rather than a medical perspective, and suggests that for some (though not all) deaf people, it makes far more sense to understand deafness not as a handicapping condition, let alone as a deficit, but as an essentially cultural condition (Ladd, 2003, 2005; Lane et al., 1996; Padden & Humphries, 1988, 2005; Reagan, 1988, 1996, 2005 [1985]). Thus, from the perspective of advocates of the sociocultural perspective, the appropriate comparison group for deaf people is not individuals with disabilities but individuals who are members of other dominated and oppressed cultural and linguistic groups. In short, the sociocultural view leads to efforts that focus on issues of civil rights and to assist deaf people to function fully in the dominant (hearing) culture (Bauman, 2004; Ladd, 2005; Shapiro, 1993, pp. 74–104; Simms & Thumann, 2007).


The case of deaf people presents an especially interesting example of the limitations of traditional discourse about “mother tongue” and “native language.” The vast majority of deaf individuals are born to hearing, and nonsigning, parents.3 Once a child is identified as having significant hearing loss, intervention begins (under the best of circumstances)—perhaps through the introduction of a sign language, perhaps through intensive oral and aural rehabilitation, and perhaps through surgical interventions such as those provided by cochlear implants.4 In some instances, a combination of these different approaches is used. What is important to note here is that in most cases the deaf child’s exposure to language (whether spoken or sign) is delayed. Such delays, in turn, have developmental consequences that are difficult to address later on in the child’s education. The exceptions here—and by far the luckiest of deaf children—are those who are born to parents who are themselves signers (and, in most cases, presumably also deaf themselves).

In everyday discourse, however, the terms deaf and hearing impaired refer to a wide array of different kinds of hearing loss and responses to hearing loss—including, for example:

  • A person who uses ASL (or some other natural sign language) as his or her primary language and identifies with the deaf cultural community.
  • A person who communicates primarily through speech (i.e., in a spoken language) and identifies with the hearing community.
  • A person who does not know either ASL (or some other natural sign language) or English (or some other spoken language), but rather communicates through gestures, mimes, and their own “home” signing systems.
  • A person who became deaf later in life, generally as a result of aging (i.e., the elderly deaf).
The population with which I am concerned in this book is a subset of the hearing impaired population: children who are prelingually deaf—that is, deaf prior to the acquisition of spoken language—and profoundly or severely deaf, not with those with a broadly defined hearing impairment.5 I am also concerned both with children who are raised in homes in which the dominant language is not a sign language, regardless of the hearing status of the parents, and those who are raised in homes in which the first language is indeed ASL. This may seem to narrow my focus, but it actually does not do so all that dramatically—the vast majority of children in residential schools for the deaf, for example, fit into this definition. Although, as we will see in Chapter 3, the numbers of such children is declining, it is these children who are most likely to constitute core members of the deafworld.


Since the 1960 publication of William Stokoe’s landmark study, Sign Language Structure (Stokoe, 1993 [1960]), there has been a veritable explosion of historical, linguistic, psycholinguistic, and sociolinguistic research dealing with ASL (see, e.g., Fischer & Siple, 1990; Liddell, 1980, 1995, 2003; Lucas, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996; Lucas & Valli, 1992; Metzger, 2000; Siple & Fischer, 1991; Valli et al., 2005), as well as with other natural sign languages (see, e.g., Emmorey & Reilly, 1995; Lucas, 1990; Plaza-Pust & Morales-López, 2008; Reagan, Penn, & Ogilvy, 2006). The result is that we now know far more about the nature and workings of natural sign languages than we did a half-century ago. In his recent book on grammar, gesture, and meaning in ASL, Liddell notes:

By the early 1970s many other linguists and psychologists began studying the properties of ASL. At that time, their published papers tended to begin with brief justifications explaining that ASL was a language. Such explanations were needed since most people still held the view that ASL was not a language. By perhaps the mid-seventies, and most certainly by the early eighties, the weight of published descriptions of ASL and its grammar was sufficient to turn the tide of opinion about the language status of ASL. Studies of various aspects of the grammar of ASL left no doubt that signers using ASL were using a real human language. . . . The recognition that sign languages were real human languages set off a flurry of activity in a number of academic arenas beginning in the seventies . . . More and more sign languages continue to be identified and investigated as researchers around the globe pursue answers to a wide variety of interesting scientific questions. (2003, pp. 4–5)

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