The Forces Pushing Deaf Kids Away From Sign Language

Future deaf Americans could do a lot less signing and a lot more speaking. Cuts in Indiana could slash budgets for state schools for the deaf, forcing some children to attend “mainstream” schools, where they have less exposure to sign language. Sign language advocates are outraged. “Speaking and listening classrooms across the nation are known for their forced exclusion of A.S.L. and expressly forbid any contact with the culturally deaf adult role models,”Marvin Miller, the president of the Indiana Association of the Deaf, told  The New York Times‘s Monica Davey.

This means more talking, less signing. And the phenomenon isn’t unique to Indiana. “Today less than 20 percent of all families choose traditional American Sign Language,” claims Hear Indiana, a group that supports deaf people who use listening and spoken language to communicate, reports the Times. “The remaining 80 percent want their children to enjoy the full range of sounds and to be able to listen and speak.” But are strained state budgets the real backbone behind these numbers, or are more deaf children and their parents shying away from signing for other reasons?

Yes, budget cuts are pushing students away from sign language. Parents can choose to send their children to a deaf school or not. But as the economy has worsened, tightening budgets have caused states like Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota and West Virginia to cut money for state-funded schools for the deaf. “Kids in the mainstream save society, taxpayers, a significant amount of money in the short-term and in the long-term when it comes to being integrated into the hearing world,” Naomi S. Horton, executive director of Hear Indiana, told Davey. The costs of a separate facility and transportation makes educating these children costlier than sending them to their neighborhood public school.

Putting deaf students in these schools encourages other types of communication besides sign language. “We view this as inflicting violence upon thousands of innocent deaf and hard-of-hearing babies — taking away their language and pinning their hopes on dismal success rates of cochlear implants,” Miller explained.

No, technology is the really behind these changes. Even if budget cuts force deaf children into mainstream schools, with better technology deaf students have new methods of communication, other than sign language. Cochlear implants, a small, electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a deaf person, have helped the hard of hearing communicate better. “Advanced technology is transforming the way the deaf relate to the hearing world, most notably in the form of cochlear ear implants which can restore significant measures of hearing, especially in young recipients,” Yahoo’s Will Stape explains.

Not all agree on the benefits of the device. “Cochlear implant advocates say the devices have a far higher success rate than critics claim, while A.S.L. advocates say the popularity of such devices is drastically overstated,” reports Davey. No matter how impactful, neither side can deny that the technology exists and it will probably only get better.

No, parents decide how to raise their kids. Ultimately, parents decide how to raise their children. Some parents of deaf children see benefits in sending their kids to mainstream school. “I know that my husband and I wish very much for our 14-year-old son Charlie to be as integrated into mainstream society as possible,” explains Kristina C., comparing the situation to the one she manages with her autistic child. “For years, we insisted that he be educated in the public schools in our towns,” finally deciding he had to be moved.

If parents choose to place their children in situations where there’s less of an emphasis on signing, that’s their choice. They don’t see it as an attack on sign language. “No one wants to take the ASL option away; we simply want to see that parents who choose listening and spoken language instruction (over placement at the Indiana School for the Deaf) have equal access to a free and appropriate public education,” Naomi Horton, the executive director of Hear Indiana told the Times.

 Whether it’s budgets, technology or personal choice, sign language isn’t for everyone.

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