I have hesitated to post anything on this subject, because I get so infuriated and emotional. But it is something that I think needs to be kept in the conversation, and not just for those of us with a vested interest (i.e. parents of deaf children, educators, etc.), but for everyone. Because it is about willful language deprivation of children. It is about, in my opinion, borderline abuse of a child.
Back in March, the Washington Post published an article about Nyle DiMarco (the winner of America’s Top Model and, at the time, a contestant on Dancing with the Stars). He stood out from the laundry list of celebrities who have appeared on that show because he is Deaf, and he is actively trying to improve the lives of deaf kids and their access to language, primarily by his recent founding of the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, with the goal of improving deaf infants’ access to sign language education. An admirable goal, if you consider the statistics of deaf children’s education and lag in language acquisition.
In response to this, the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, posted this on their website (with my edits here):
A recent article in the Washington Post’s “The Reliable Source” column highlighted Nyle DiMarco … who has established the Nyle DiMarco Foundation with a mission to promote deaf infants’ access to American Sign Language (ASL). DiMarco has stated that “there are many deaf kids out there being deprived of their own language.”
The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing applauds DiMarco’s achievements and recognizes that ASL exists as a communication option for deaf children. However, it is just one such option and its use is declining. The reality is that most deaf children – more than 95 percent – are born to parents with typical hearing … For families who choose a listening and spoken language outcome, which is the majority of families, DiMarco’s statements perpetuate the misconception that deaf children cannot listen and speak well. … Recent studies show that children who solely utilize listening and spoken language, rather than a combination of this with ASL, demonstrate better listening and spoken language skills than do children who follow a combination approach … It is our hope to dispel the myths about deafness and spread the word that deaf children can hear and talk. What it means to be “deaf” has changed.
Meredith Sugar, Esq.
President, Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
I have since read many eloquent responses to the AG Bell Association, some excerpts of which I will include here. I have also seen videos and read pieces from Deaf adults who grew up in the AG Bell culture of sign language deprivation at the expense of spoken language – something which I think this video highlights so well.
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) had this to say:
Nyle DiMarco is the latest in a long line of confident role models who demonstrate the power of being bilingual using American Sign Language (ASL) and English, and he unabashedly shares the powerful role his bilingual upbringing has had in his success … certain organizations and medical professionals continue to spread myths about sign language, primarily that a deaf or hard of hearing child will be less successful if sign language is introduced. This destructive approach is harmful to many families who deserve to know the benefits of sign language for cognitive development and education.
Numerous studies show that ASL actually enhances spoken language and auditory comprehension, even with cochlear implant users. In addition, sign language has been shown to improve academic performance.In fact, an article was recently published in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal outlining the clear benefits of learning sign language over an oral-only approach for any babies identified as deaf or hard of hearing. … Families of deaf and hard of hearing children also deserve to know the harms of failing to provide their child with a fully accessible language. Language deprivation as a result of misguided attempts to solely utilize listening and spoken language is real and devastating, and the effects are witnessed daily by many in our community. …. Organizations and medical professionals who recommend that families withhold sign language from a child who has been identified as deaf or hard of hearing are grossly irresponsible.
How any organization or medical professional who claims to have the best interests of deaf and hard-of-hearing children at heart can tell parents (who mostly likely know no better and have no resources to learn otherwise) to withhold language from their child is wrong, uninformed, and, as the NAD stated, “grossly irresponsible”.
Deanne Bray posted on her Facebook account another response from two DHH teachers at University High School in Irvine, CA., which I would like to include parts of here:
As educators for the Deaf who use ASL and work in a Regional program for the Deaf, we are more than familiar with the debate that has defined Deaf Education for hundreds of years—the “oral vs. sign” debate. We have wished for some time now that this particular debate was finally put to rest—that parents, educators, and professionals of all kinds would recognize the tremendous benefits, linguistically, neurologically, and cognitively, of using ASL with Deaf children … After reading AG Bell’s patronizing response (Dispelling Myths About Deafness by Meredith Sugar, Esq.) to the Washington Post’s article on Nyle DiMarco, we realized the battle for the hearts and minds of parents of Deaf children is far from over. Although hearing aids and cochlear implants can surely supplement a child’s exposure to language, these mechanisms are no substitute … Simply put: Deaf children should be provided with ASL during their formative years. …
While AG Bell’s response was filled with falsehoods and incorrect assertions, one sentence in particular jumped out at us: “Children frequently communicate quite well with listening and spoken language alone, and the number of children who have a need for ASL has decreased dramatically.” Let us be perfectly clear, Mrs. Sugar: we teach high school students. For twenty years, our classes have been FULL of students who come from “oral” backgrounds and “sound great.” Unfortunately, they don’t understand a fraction of what they should. When they enter our program, however, the blindfold literally comes off. They finally start to understand what is going on in the classroom for the first time because they now have access to their language—ASL. … Their stories are simply heartbreaking. They have been deprived of the most basic of human rights—the right to language. And your organization, driven by fear, ignorance, and arrogance, seeks to perpetuate this isolation and language deprivation. … there is simply no basis to your contention that “the window for a deaf child to acquire listening and spoken language is much shorter than the window in which ASL can be acquired.” The critical period is the critical period. The fact that you equate what happens in the brain with what comes out of a voice box simply underscores what you don’t know. Speech is not language. Language develops not in our throats but in our minds. Exposure to language provides the foundation for all cognitive processes. … Deaf Education is not an either/or proposition, as your organization would have parents and your donors believe. Why not give a Deaf child everything, including ASL? … know this: as teachers, we’ve seen the pain behind those smiles. We’ve seen the loneliness, the isolation, and the resentment. Please stop perpetuating the myth of the Happy Speaking and Listening Deaf Child. He doesn’t exist.
Laurie Drago, M.A. Kay Anderson, M.A.
OCDE Regional Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program
University High School, Irvine, CA
These are the things that, as a mother to a deaf child, make me so angry. Our experience has not been wholly unique, although we were very lucky to have a good friend who studied ASL and worked in a school as an interpreter to give us ideas and guidance. We were unique (I believe) to have a speech therapist who recognized the value of providing our daughter with language and encouraged us to focus on that vs. speech – so that she had language.
We were not unique in having an audiologist who believes in the lies of the oralism group, that children should learn speech before sign language, and withheld the valuable resource of the parent-infant program which provides in-home sign language instruction and ways to adjust to your deaf infants needs.We were not unique in having a speech pathologist at Mayo Clinic tell us that after choosing cochlear implantation for our daughter that we needed to abruptly stop all sign language with our daughter in order for her to “receive the full benefits of the implants”. So, so wrong. To abruptly and completely remove my daughter’s ability to communicate and learn is not just misguided or grossly irresponsible, it is abusive. And there is nothing acceptable in that.