The major issue with deafness isn’t lack of hearing, but communication. Being able to hear means being able to speak, and for the majority of us, that’s normal. But if you’re born Deaf, it’s an entirely different story. Language development occurs in the early years, but if a child isn’t exposed to language in that period, being able to learn language is nearly impossible due to the way that the brain is wired. Some medical technology has helped, such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. However, these technologies are not always perfect and sometimes have problems, are often not covered by insurance and can be expensive. But for many people born Deaf, the primary vehicle for communication is American Sign Language, or ASL. April 15th is the day on which this language is celebrated.
One term I will be using throughout this blog is "Deaf" as opposed to “deaf”. “Deaf” with a capital “D” describes an individual whose primary language is ASL and whose hearing loss occurred very early in life. It is also used to refer to the state of being deaf—the Deaf community, Deaf schools, and Deaf culture. In this way, too, deafness is a truly unique disability (and some would not characterize it as a disability at all) for the way its members are unified as a result. A small “d” indicates the condition of being unable to hear, regardless of when that ability was lost in life.
The Origins of American Sign Language
Thomas Gallaudet was part of a committee studying setting up the first school for the Deaf in the 1810’s. On behalf of the committee, he went to Europe to learn instruction techniques for the teaching of deaf children. In France he was introduced to sign language and convinced a teacher at the school, Laurent Clerc, to teach at the new school that was being created in Massachusetts. Laurent Clerc agreed, and taught Gallaudet French sign language on the voyage over to the states. On April 15, 1816, the first school for Deaf children opened in the United States. American Sign Language is based on French Sign Language and there are still many linguistic similarities between the two languages, whereas the difference between British Sign Language and American Sign Language is as different as spoken English is from Mandarin Chinese.
It was not until 1960 that William Stokoe wrote “Occasional Paper 8” which scientifically established sign language as a language of its own. The paper recognized ASL as having grammar, syntax and unique vocabulary, establishing firm linguistic principles inherent in the language. This was considered a landmark paper for the Deaf and broadened world recognition of ASL and other sign languages as languages in their own right.
Today, over a half a million people use ASL to communicate in the United States. It’s considered the third most frequently used language, after English and Spanish! Sign Language is the 4th most commonly used language in England, and over 70 million people currently worldwide use some form of sign language to communicate.
There are even dialects of ASL in the United States, most prominently Black Sign Language (BASL). At one point on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, there was a large population of hereditary deaf individuals, and sign language was used by both hearing and Deaf alike on the island. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) is now considered an extinct language, but there are still dialects based on the former language still used today.
Gallaudet University and Education
Thomas Gallaudet taught at the school using sign language until 1830 and Laurent Clerc until 1850. Thomas Gallaudet died in 1851, but his youngest son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, took up the cause for Deaf Education. He was determined to create a university for Deaf students in the United States, and in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the approval for the founding of the university, which was originally part of Columbia University and called “The National Deaf-Mute College”. In 1986 it was renamed Gallaudet University. One notable fact is that the football huddle was invented at the university (so that opposing teams couldn’t see their signs).
In 1880, a conference was held in Milan, Italy, to discuss the future of education for the deaf. 163 delegates were hearing and only one was deaf. They passed a number of resolutions that were aimed at the eradication of sign languages around the world. Many schools and countries adopted the resolutions, and the resolutions passed by the convention still have a following even to the present day.
Throughout this period, many Deaf children were forbidden to use sign language, through punishment, intimidation or threats. Many families went along with this, rather than learning ASL in the household to communicate with their child. Alexander Graham Bell famously wanted to eradicate sign language and sought to eliminate deafness in the world. Although Bell advocated against intermarriage of hearing and deaf people to prevent another generation of Deaf children, science does not support this claim and most children born Deaf are typically born into hearing families.
One very important thing to remember is that ASL isn’t English. There isn’t a past or future tense, for example. One could argue that it isn’t just “sign” language—many parts of the body are used to convey meaning as part of the grammatical structure. For example, raised eyebrows indicates a question. Shoulders, face and upper body can convey different things with different signs.
The fact that ASL isn’t English has its drawbacks, too. In order to learn to read a language, one must also know how to speak it. Most Deaf students are usually several years behind their hearing peers in reading. Even in an environment where ASL is fluently spoken, graduating Deaf high school seniors rarely can read above a junior high school level if they have never heard spoken language. As a result, Deaf students often lag far behind their hearing peers in many academic areas.
Gallaudet University is still a thriving institution of higher learning today. According to their website, they now have over 60 bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. programs. Half of their students are deaf or hard of hearing, the other half are hearing. One third are new signers. There are over 1400 students and claim that 97% of their alumni are either pursuing further education or are employed.
Gallaudet University did have one scandal in 1988 that achieved national prominence. The former president had retired and three people ran for the office—two of whom were hearing and one was Deaf. One of the hearing candidates received the job. The students revolted and shut down the school, demanding that—for the first time in the history of the school—a Deaf person be made president. Within a week, the Deaf candidate—I King Jordan—was made president, and the protestors received no punishment for their actions. This is largely considered a precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act, in that disabled people started to realize they could stand up for their rights—and win.
The Future of ASL
It’s difficult to say where ASL as a language is going in the future. As mentioned earlier, there have been technological strides in aiding with hearing. But equally true is the fact that these advances have fallen short of expectations. Cochlear implants, for example, were heralded as the wave of the future to “cure” deafness. For many people, these devices don’t work well, or can cause neurological problems that outweigh the benefit of hearing. They can work well for some people, but not everyone, and evaluation is on a case by case basis. Some congenital causes of deafness (such as prenatal rubella) have been eliminated, but deafness continues to remain an issue, with an estimated 13% of adults 12 years and older having some type of disabling hearing loss in the United States. Over 6000 infants in 2019 were identified as having a hearing loss at birth in the United States, or about 1.7 per 1000 children screened during infancy.
American Sign Language is currently the third most commonly taught language in the U.S., and there is a growing demand for sign language interpreters. However, many schools for the deaf have been closing for lack of funds and lower enrollment. In our own neighborhood, Fremont has one of the highest concentrations of Deaf individuals in the United States, with the California School for the Deaf and Ohlone College, which offers degrees in Deaf studies.
There is greater awareness of Deafness in the hearing community, with movies such as “Children of a Lesser God” and “CODA”, sign language classes being popular and taught in schools and universities, and more books about Deaf characters aimed at all ages. The dystopian vision for the deaf that Alexander Graham Bell proposed is never going to happen, but that does not mean that struggles are over for equal recognition by the Deaf in a predominantly hearing society. ASL will endure, Deafness will endure, but there will always be challenges to overcome.
LOTE—“Languages Other Than English”
The San Jose Public Library System now has a service that provides children’s stories with over 1300 digital books in over 45 languages with English translations—including many sign language systems including American Sign Language, Australian Sign Language, British Sign Language and many spoken languages as well. The service is called "LOTE" for "Languages Other Thank English". For those of you who are young or young at heart who want to investigate learning a new language, this might be a great place to start!