Being deaf is more common than many people think, and deaf children are usually born to hearing parents. In fact, more than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Hearing loss is so common that one in every eight people in the United States have hearing loss in both ears, as these stats from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders note.
What is ASL?
Communication is not limited to the hearing world. ASL is a language expressed using movements of the hands and face. ASL stands for American Sign Language, and it is a visual language. ASL is used in the United States and parts of Canada; other countries have unique forms of sign languages.
If you have a deaf or hard of hearing child, it is important to learn how to communicate with them, even with advances in hearing aids and cochlear implants. ASL is an important foundation for early communication skills. Research has shown that learning ASL aids in later acquisition of spoken language if the person becomes hearing due to medical intervention.
Some benefits of ASL include more accurate testing, higher scores on IQ tests, enhanced executive functioning (visual language), the promotion of family bonding, enhanced fine motor skills and earlier communication.
Is being deaf a disability?
“Often when a child receives the diagnosis from a medical provider, they (parents) treat deafness as something to be cured. Think about the child having access to a culture and community. Deafness is not just something to fix or treat,” says Lynette Mattiacci, a deaf individual who is the director of the family resource center at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.
Mattiacci gives her perspective. “Everyone has their journey. I can’t speak for every deaf person. There are a lot of different opinions. I identify as a deaf woman, not a woman who is deaf. That is integral to my identity. I grew up in a Deaf community fundamental to my identity. I do not see myself as disabled. I don’t identify with anything negative about being deaf.”
Beverly Caldwell is the mother of a child who belongs to the Deaf community.
“I don’t say disability, but I am aware of the medical wording and how things are. I go with ‘difference,’” she says. “It’s a different way of learning and communicating.”
What happens without ASL?
Some parents may be hesitant to start teaching their child ASL. This decision is due in part to a misconception that learning ASL means that kids won’t connect or interact with the hearing world. Sometimes families feel like they have to choose between the Deaf world and the hearing world, but this isn’t the case. Children younger than 10 have the easiest time learning a new language, and learning ASL won’t prevent your child from learning your spoken language too.
“A lot of families feel they have to choose, but they don’t realize they can give their child access to all of the options. It doesn’t cause any harm by giving the child access to visual language,” Mattiacci says.
Without access to a way to communicate early on, children can suffer from something called “language deprivation.” Language deprivation results from not having access to language early in life. Language deprivation puts children at risk for cognitive delays, mental health issues and trauma.
Caldwell provides her perspective on why she wanted her son, Noah, to have access to ASL.
“Because Noah is HoH (hard of hearing), he will speak well enough that people will forget that he does have the hearing difference. It is vital for them to have that full range of language. Noah can do both. If he runs into a relative who doesn’t sign, he’ll speak to them, and I’ll fill in for them (with ASL) and let him know what’s going on. It’s only an asset, and kids are flexible,” she says.
Deaf and deaf
Sometimes you will see capital D in the spelling of Deaf and a lowercase d in the spelling for deaf. This spelling discrepancy is not a typo. Deaf (capital D) refers to the group of people who share a language and culture, while deaf (lowercase d) refers to the condition of not hearing. Many members of the Deaf community take pride in their identities as Deaf people. The Deaf community provides support, interaction and a sense of belonging for people who are deaf or HoH.
What to remember when learning ASL
“Make sure you breathe. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with the new language. Breathe, relax and absorb the language. Take it like you learned in school with ABCs, from letters to more productive signs. Start at the beginning,” advises Caldwell, who learned ASL to communicate with her son.
Another important piece of advice is to learn ASL from deaf people and with deaf people. While you can learn from social media, be careful as fraudulent ASL learning channels exist.
Use ASL classes, workshops, presentations, events, outings and social opportunities to learn more about serving the needs of deaf and HoH children.
Resources in Our Community
Gallaudet University is a private research university focused on advancing deaf and bilingual research and advocating for deaf education. gallaudet.edu; 202-651-5000