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Keeping ASL at Center of Deaf Culture

3Qs with Harlan Lane, founder of the Northeastern’s ASL Program
August 1st, 2011

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.

 -  by Kara Shemin


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