Helping Deaf Children Learn in Coronavirus Isolation
Wheelock Deaf Studies Program builds new ASL education library
As the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools and upended the lives of students around the globe, Aiken Bottoms (Wheelock ’18) was thinking about the extreme isolation suddenly facing a special group of students: deaf children.
Many are now living in double seclusion, sequestered by coronavirus in households where family members often struggle to communicate in sign language. Deeply troubled by their predicament, Bottoms, a kindergarten teacher, turned to Facebook.
“There is no scarcity for virtual learning materials for those who can hear. I am here to talk about deaf kids who do face a scarcity for online educational materials,” Bottoms wrote and signed in a video. “We need to figure out how to support these kids.”
It was a call to action that rallied Boston University faculty and students, including Bottoms’ sibling, Andrew R. Bottoms, Wheelock College of Education & Human Development instructor and Deaf Studies Program codirector. In less than a week, he and other faculty and students created a new resource for deaf children everywhere called the Deaf Education Library, a bilingual repository of courses, curriculum, and books –all in American Sign Language (ASL).
The library website currently includes ASL literature, from YouTube videos like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, told in sign language by actor Shoshannah Stern (who has appeared in films and TV hits like Weeds and Grey’s Anatomy), to books signed by YouTube personalities, interpreters, doctoral students, and teachers at deaf schools across the United States. There are hundreds of entries to help deaf students, from toddlers to high schoolers. And it’s free of charge.
Organizers crowd-source the collection from across the internet and social media. Intended to benefit deaf children, parents, and teachers (as well as parents filling in for teachers because of coronavirus), the idea is to take the patchwork of sign language resources for deaf children and put them in one place to help children stay connected to language and learning from home.
The reality for many deaf children is startling: about 72 percent of families of deaf children do not use sign language at home, according to a 2005 study published by Gallaudet University Press. This is due to a variety of economic and logistical reasons, as well as bias against sign language and an early intervention system that often encourages spoken language over sign language for deaf and hard of hearing children.
ASL advocates like the Bottoms siblings, who grew up with deaf parents and call ASL their first language, say a lack of access to sign language for children is detrimental in good times, and even more destructive as coronavirus shutters deaf schools. The library idea, which came together quickly after Aiken Bottoms’ Facebook plea, got people excited.
“The outbreak did serve to galvanize the community,” Andrew Bottoms wrote in an email. “What makes our platform unique is that it is specifically geared towards the needs of deaf education. The deaf community has been willing to contribute materials to ensure that deaf children who are living at home have access to American Sign Language; they just needed a platform on which to provide content.”
Aiken Bottoms, who teaches at the Marie Philip School at the Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, Mass., has uploaded lesson plans that teach children to retell stories or learn addition using strategies specifically geared to signers. Other deaf educators have done the same.
Naomi Caselli (Wheelock’09, GRS’10), a Wheelock assistant professor whose research focuses on the effects of language deprivation on cognition in deaf children, says the new library also capitalizes on the surge of new materials being created on YouTube and social media to help children learn sign language. Like any language learning, the first five years of life are central to language development for young minds.
Caselli notes that her father, who was deaf, was not taught sign language until he was 20 years old. She says she still encounters older students in her research who have not learned how to communicate through signing. She has concerns that children who are at home due to the coronavirus outbreak may go long stretches without communicating and flexing that part of their brain. Educational programming on TV isn’t helpful if its viewers are too young to read closed-captioning.
“Kids are at risk of language deprivation,” Caselli says. “And language is the foundation of all kinds of development.”
Educational material for deaf children already exists online, including offerings on the Sign Language Channel, ASLized.org, and the VL2 Storybook apps, but these resources are scattered across the internet, making it difficult for parents to easily locate age-appropriate content.
The lack of video stories told in sign language for deaf children led to the hashtag #operationASLstorytime and a recent push to record people reading children’s books on YouTube. (Actor and model Nyle DiMarco of Dancing with the Stars is one of the better-known readers.) BU students in the Deaf Studies Program are helping locate video resources, course curricula, and other ASL resources to boost the number of offerings. There are already hundreds of entries, but the organizers hope that more will be contributed regularly.
The site is already finding a grateful audience among parents like Kaitlin Stack Whitney, the mother of two deaf children and a Rochester Institute of Technology professor. She is juggling the needs of her children, ages three and five, while she and her husband, also a professor, work remotely.
ASL is also her family’s primary language, and Stack Whitney takes four to six hours of sign language classes a week.
“But I’m not in a position to replace a deaf teacher,” she says. “I can’t teach science and math in ASL.”
Even before coronavirus upturned life as people knew it, the barriers and systemic biases facing deaf children meant a constant struggle for her family. Their medical insurance does not cover sign language courses, although it does include speech therapy, cochlear implants, and visits to an audiologist. Some states don’t even require audiologists to know sign language, she says.
And these are the challenges faced by families with means.
The BU Deaf Studies Program new Deaf Education Library will help ease caregiver anxiety and give children and their parents easy access to valuable language learning tools. Stack Whitney says it also helps her cut through the poor-quality content online that can drown out better ASL resources.
“Knowing it’s there,” she says, “is really going to help people.”