The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware (ACLU-DE) filed a complaint arguing that too many Deaf children have the opportunity to attend a bilingual school where they can learn both ASL and English. Yes, reread that sentence. We were as surprised as you are.
This complaint, if successful, has the potential to cause significant harm to Deaf children, and fails to acknowledge historical and contemporary challenges faced by the Deaf community. The complaint relates to “over-referral” to bilingual programming and the lack of access to a brand of therapy known as Listening and Spoken Language (LSL), which advocates children not learn ASL. The Deaf Center at BU Wheelock instead advocates that all Deaf children have a right to accessible language, particularly during early childhood. In the US, this means nurturing proficiency in both American Sign Language (ASL), English, and any other language(s) families may wish to share with their children.
The ACLU-DE’s advocacy for LSL, a term branded by the Alexander Graham Bell Association, echoes historical practices influenced by Bell’s philosophy in the 1800s. Bell’s career included significant efforts in Deaf Education (he founded the Deaf Education program here at Boston University). Beginning in the late 1800s, Deaf students were generally forbidden to use sign language and were instead compelled to learn spoken and written English. The goal was assimilation into the “normal” hearing world, and sign language use was considered abnormal or inferior. Perhaps most importantly, Bell discouraged all practices that promoted the development of a Deaf community.
LSL is the latest instantiation of Bell’s oralist philosophy, and while the therapies and technologies have modernized, LSL practitioners still give the archaic advice to avoid using a sign language with Deaf children. Spoken language interventions, both modern and historical, generally do not provide sufficient access for a child to successfully learn a spoken language. This makes excluding sign language risky, often leaving Deaf children without access to a first language during early childhood. Arguing that too many children are in bilingual placements as opposed to placements where they would be restricted to learning a spoken language is an example of these anti-ASL practices.
Because of the risks associated with prohibiting sign language exposure, the Deaf Center opposes the outdated notions that LSL was founded on and instead adopts a view grounded in empirical evidence. We take no issue in teaching Deaf children a spoken language, and recognize that there is often value in spoken language. However, as articulated in the American Academy of Pediatrics guidance on Deaf children, we argue that withholding ASL is harmful. There is resounding evidence that bilingualism is an asset, not a deficit, and learning ASL comes with all the benefits of learning any language. Compelling Deaf children to assimilate into the hearing world may inadvertently hinder their cognitive development by forcing them to make do with language exposure that is not fully accessible, instead of allowing them to thrive with a fully accessible (to sighted Deaf children) natural sign language, like ASL.
Misinformation about the possible harms of learning ASL, like the ideas put forward in the ACLU-DE complaint, is often disseminated to hearing parents of Deaf babies. For example, the complaint cites the false idea that the human brain has a preference for learning spoken language (it does not–the brain responds to spoken language in very similar ways as sign language). It also cites the false idea that Deaf children can reliably learn a spoken language (more often than not, they cannot reach age-appropriate spoken language outcomes), an idea that is used to argue that learning sign language is unnecessary. This misinformation is particularly harmful when parents are at the beginning of their journey with a Deaf child, a time when getting accessible language to the child is critically important.
Early access to ASL is not only important because it supports language and cognitive development, but because it is a fundamental aspect of Deaf culture and identity. Because many Deaf people use ASL to communicate, when children learn ASL they have means of connecting with and learning from Deaf peers and adults. Deaf children who do not know ASL may face challenges in finding role models, a sense of identity, and solidarity from other Deaf people.
We were heartened to see that the ACLU-DE is considering the objections many Deaf people across the country expressed. The Deaf Center encourages the ACLU-DE not only to reverse their action but to commit to advocating for increased opportunities to learn ASL (e.g., advocate for policies to ensure deaf children meet language acquisition milestones). The ACLU-DE must engage with Deaf advocates, experts in education, and other relevant fields to gain a more comprehensive understanding of language acquisition for Deaf children. A collaborative effort, informed by comprehensive research and engagement with the Deaf community, is essential to dispel misinformation and ensure that educational practices align with the human rights of Deaf individuals.
Note: We use the term “Deaf” here as inclusively as possible to include people with a wide range of hearing levels, inclusive of people who have diverse identities with respect to Deaf cultures, and inclusive of DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, and Hard of Hearing people.