3Qs: Keeping ASL at center of deaf culture

Recent budget cuts in Indiana and other parts of the U.S. have threatened the future of state schools for the deaf, creating worry among deaf and hard-of-hearing families that their children will be pushed into mainstream schools where American Sign Language (ASL) takes a back seat to new “speaking and listening” technologies. Distinguished Professor of Psychology Harlan Lane, who founded the ASL program at Northeastern and recently wrote a book about deaf culture and deaf ethnicity in the U.S., addresses the debate between specialized vs. mainstream schools for the deaf, and explains how sign language trumps technology.

What are the consequences of state budget cuts to deaf education?

The state budget cuts tend to be leveled at the residential schools for deaf education because those schools tend to be more expensive than programs in the local schools, which, in any case, are not paid by the state but are paid locally. In recent years, quite a few residential schools for the deaf have closed.

Is there an ideal learning environment for the deaf and hard-of-hearing?

By law, hearing-impaired children have a right to education in the “least restrictive environment.” For some, who can speak and hear, albeit with difficulty, that means a regular “mainstream” classroom. Others are less restricted if interpreters are employed in special classrooms locally (provided the child knows ASL and thus can understand the interpreter). For a great many deaf children, however, the school for the deaf is the least restrictive. There, the pupils have fluent use of their best language, their sign language, which is used to teach English and other subjects; they have deaf role models, a positive identity, extracurricular activities and incidental learning. It is possible to integrate the two approaches: Some residential programs bus their students to the local schools for selected integrated classes, thereby enriching the residential school curriculum. When local schools cannot afford interpreters, the integration tends to focus on arts and physical education.

With new technologies to assist the deaf, like cochlear implants, will ASL one day be rendered obsolete? Why do some parents steer children to use technologies to learn to “speak and listen” rather than nurturing them to use their native language, ASL?

For the minority of children and adults who lost their hearing after acquiring English, the implants can provide helpful supplementary cues for lip-reading. However, most deaf children, as the implant teams acknowledge, remain hearing-impaired after surgery; sooner or later these children discover the power and beauty of ASL, which becomes their primary language. In addition, most children of deaf parents learn ASL as their first language. Finally, many families cannot afford the expensive surgery and prolonged rehabilitative therapy and embrace ASL by default.  So ASL is not likely to become obsolete.

Understandably, many hearing parents with a deaf child seek a decisive remedy and are quick to accept the frequently overstated claims of the surgery-prosthesis-therapy complex. Parents are unlikely to learn about the Deaf World nor learn from it. They do not realize that deaf children of deaf parents, who learn ASL as a native language, far outperform deaf children of hearing parents in mastery of English, in grades, in emotional adjustment, in likelihood of going on to college and more. Moreover, in our recent book, “The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry,” we make the case that deaf children are born into an ethnic group, with its own culture, values, customs and language — American Sign Language. Hence, parents of a child born deaf or early deafened have an ethical obligation, like parents of a trans-racially adopted child, to assure that their child learns the language and culture of its birthright.