Remembering Other Dreams: (Sign) Language Access & Empowerment


Students and supporters march on Capitol Hill in protest for the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University carrying the banner (on loan from the Crispus Attucks museum) used in the 1988 protests to declare Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. (Gallaudet University Archives)

By Natasha Abner 

Thirty-seven years ago, students, faculty, alumni, and supporters of Gallaudet University — the only university for the deaf in the world — put Deaf awareness on the national and international agenda. (Capitalization of “Deaf” is used to represent its status as a cultural identity; lowercase “deaf” indicates the physical trait of deafness.) Gallaudet protestors had closed down the campus and taken to the streets of Washington, D.C., to fight for their own self representation: a Deaf president of their university, the first in its 124 year history. Still images splashed across newspapers and nightly newscasts of the protestors chanting in American Sign Language “deaf president now,” using the convention of representing signs in capitalized English orthography.

The Deaf President Now protests ended successfully on March 13, 1988, and have subsequently come to be viewed as a historical landmark in launching the Deaf civil rights movement. Student involvement was pivotal in the success of the protests and in getting younger generations of the Deaf to recognize that their position and the systems to which they were subjugated and by which they were oppressed could be changed by their own actions. Still, thirty-seven years after the students’ monumental achievements in the Gallaudet protests, much work remains to be done in the struggle for Deaf civil rights, including language access rights necessary to create an economically and politically empowered Deaf minority.

Discrimination against and oppression of the deaf frequently has its roots in attitudes of audism, a sense of superiority based on one’s ability to hear (or act as if one can hear). One source of systematic and systemic oppression that the Gallaudet students faced then, and that deaf individuals continue to face today, is discrimination against sign languages. Sign language interpreters frequently capture public attention because we are fascinated by the vibrant, visual, physical, full-bodied and embodied properties of signed languages (properties that exhibit grammatical patterns just like any other language, signed or spoken).  It’s hard to believe that signed languages, which elicit such fascination from the public, are often ridiculed, discriminated against, and made inaccessible to the very people who need them: the deaf (though it should be noted that the community of signers extends beyond individuals who are deaf). 

For, example, parents of deaf children need to be able to sign. Deafness is not likely to be shared among parents and their children. Only 5-10% of deaf children are born to deaf parents, which means that 90-95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Hearing parents likely have no sign language to share with their deaf children. Hearing parents, in addition, are unable to share a spoken language with their deaf children, because deaf children have no natural access to spoken language. Without appropriate language interventions, deaf children born into hearing households will lack early language exposure.  

Lack of early language exposure can be detrimental to language and cognitive development in all children and is likely responsible for the low academic performance and socioeconomic marginalization of many members of the Deaf minority. The medical community frequently cites statistics regarding the socioeconomic and educational disadvantages of the deaf to bolster support for cochlear implantation and other medical interventions. It is important to recognize, however, that these are impairments of policy and practice in language access and education, not in deafness. In the words of I. King Jordan — the man who, after a week of student protests, was announced as the first deaf president of Gallaudet University — deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear. Indeed, one of the protestors’ main points was that the limitations of the Deaf community are imposed by the hearing society, not by the physical attribute of deafness.

The best guarantee for normal language and cognitive development in deaf children is through early sign language exposure. Cochlear implants, while a significant technological achievement, cannot make a born-deaf person function just like a hearing person. Cochlear implants are not guaranteed to be a success and are not a viable option for all forms of deafness. Nor are they without their own set of risks (sometimes leading to death) as well as other ethical and economic issues. The average cost of implantation and post-operative rehabilitation is $40,000 according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Additional speech therapy that is often required for cochlear implant recipients costs approximately $81 per session according to the 2014 Medicare guidelines.  Thus, cochlear implantation is expensive for those undergoing the procedure and lucrative for industries affiliated with the device. (For comparison, American Sign Language courses are available at a community college near me for about $110 per credit per semester.) Nevertheless, cochlear implants and hearing aids may function as powerful assistive devices. They cannot, however, replace natural, early language exposure. Interestingly, research coming out of the University of Connecticut has shown that cochlear implantation is most successful—in terms of language development—for deaf children who have Deaf parents, that is, children who are exposed to a sign language from birth and are being raised bilingual.

Indeed, it is bilingual language rights that are advocated for by many in the Deaf community. As members of the Deaf cultural minority, deaf children have the linguistic right to sign language access. Their dual membership in the broader community, however, also gives them linguistic right to access the language of the broader community, either in its spoken or written form. The World Federation of the Deaf recognizes the complex and diverse language rights and needs of the deaf child, as well as the vast social and economic consequences of language choices in deaf education, and has recently circulated a petition in support of accepting and respecting all languages and forms of communication. During an interview with Talkin’ Socialism, the podcast of the Chicago DSA, Joe Schwartz remarked that we cannot achieve political democracy without economic democracy. The best way to economically and politically democratize the Deaf community is to create policies that protect and provide for appropriate language access.  

NatashaAbnerAID.png Natasha Abner teaches and researches sign language linguistics at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. She is hearing.

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