ASL: Not Guilty

This has happened so many times I’ve lost count. A discussion ensues about poor English skills in the deaf community and someone blames ASL. Excessive use of ASL, this person will warn you, causes many a deaf person to lose his grasp of English. What’s going on here?

Normally, this would be a topic for the appropriate experts in linguistics to discuss. But I can no longer sit on my hands and watch other people make a scapegoat out of ASL. Therefore I would like to share with you my own deaf perspective on this controversial subject.

Granted, illiteracy in the deaf community is nothing new. It’s been a concern for many, many years. I am not surprised at all when people lament the failure of the education system to bring deaf children’s reading and writing levels up to par. Yes, we have failed many deaf children. Yes, we must continue striving for newer and better ways to educate them. But no, we do not need to point our fingers at ASL as the source of the problem.

First of all, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves about deaf history. Illiteracy, as previously mentioned, is a problem that’s been around for a long time. A very long time. Yet if we stop and think about it, ASL has not been around for a long time, at least not in classrooms all over the United States.

The fact is, for most of the 20th century, sign language was not used in the classroom. Oralism was prevalent, and sign language was forbidden. Spoken and written English were the primary means of communication. And, as it still is today, illiteracy was a huge problem. And since ASL was not used in the classroom for most of the century, we cannot blame it for the low reading levels all over the country.

On the contrary, after the philosophy of Total Communication was officially adopted in 1976, opportunities for the deaf skyrocketed. Deaf students have had significantly more access to information in the classroom since then and opportunities for advancement (both academically and professionally) have increased dramatically.

Common sense, really. You can’t learn anything if you don’t understand your teachers. And it is usually sign language that allows most deaf students to understand what’s going on. Look around you and you’ll see more deaf administrators, executives, lawyers, businessmen and entrepreneurs than ever before. Not to sugarcoat anything, mind you. Illiteracy is still a major concern. But if you look carefully at the pattern, ASL has helped more than it has hindered.

In addition to all of this, it is still hard to imagine ASL as the cause of illiteracy because its use in the classroom today is still not as widespread as we might think. For as much as we celebrate ASL, it is actually used by a relatively small number of teachers.

In the November 1997 issue of DeafNation, Trudy Suggs wrote a powerful and sobering article about the number of deaf staff working in deaf schools. The numbers were shockingly low. Only three schools reported that over 40 percent of their staff was deaf. Most responded with numbers between 12 and 35 percent. Many schools refused to respond to the survey at all. The scary thing is Suggs was being generous. She included all deaf staff in her numbers, including aides, maintenance crews, office assistants, dorm staff, coaches, and so on. Had the survey focused exclusively on teachers and administrators, the results would have been far more disconcerting.

No offense at all is intended to the many hearing teachers of deaf students, who are putting forth an incredible amount of effort and dedication into their jobs. But it’s apparent that the number of bona fide, Native ASL-signing staff in deaf schools is very low (during a lecture at the 1998 NAD conference, one educator stated that approximately 12 percent of teachers for the deaf are deaf themselves). Therefore, it makes no sense to blame ASL for whatever literacy problems still exist.

Nonetheless, ASL is still used as a scapegoat for illiteracy. From time to time I’ve seen ASL cited as a possible reason for a child’s lack of English skills. For example, a testimonial by Otto Menzel, Ph.D., was presented to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Public Health and Safety on February 12th, 1998. Truth be told, he gave a very powerful, accurate report on the state of deaf education. I agreed with him in most aspects until he went off on a tangent that appears to pin the blame on excessive use of ASL for today’s disappointing reading levels.

How does ASL wind up taking the blame, anyway? Good question, and I’m going to take a shot at answering it. My belief is that ASL is a victim of guilt by association. Let’s take a look, step-by-step, at how ASL often winds up being the bad guy:

Let’s say a deaf child is born into a hearing family. Such is the nature of this child’s hearing loss is that ASL would be the most beneficial means of communication. Unfortunately, his hearing loss is not identified until he’s almost two years old. By then, a significant language delay is all but guaranteed (note: since the time this article was originally published in my book Anything But Silent,there have been great strides in testing for hearing loss at birth).

If, at that stage the parents decide to learn ASL, they still have a formidable barrier to overcome. Not only has their child missed out on two years’ worth of language acquisition, but it takes a considerable time (and average of five to seven years, according to information from a Deaf Ed class) for the parents to become fluent in ASL. Considering that the optimal window for picking up language is the first five years of life, we have a real uphill battle in the making (research has indicated that if a child hasn’t had significant access to language by age five, this child will most likely struggle with language and literacy for the rest of his life).

In most cases, however, hearing parents ultimately prefer or are strongly encouraged to choose the mainstream, oral/audist options. Not to criticize those options, as the kids who can thrive in such an environment certainly do. But as for the ones who can’t, they have lost even more valuable time to acquire language.

Now suppose our hypothetical deaf child has had no language at home and has bounced around from one mainstream program to the other with no success. Eventually, he winds up in a residential school where ASL is encouraged. Suddenly, with exponentially increased access, he begins to absorb information. He picks up ASL from his peers and from his teachers. His communication and social skills become vastly improved.

Unfortunately, he is still way behind as far as reading and writing skills are concerned. And then comes the erroneous correlation from professionals everywhere: This kid is using ASL, but he can’t read or write; therefore, it must have been the use of ASL that caused his poor reading and writing skills.

And then, whenever a new, innovative teaching strategy involving ASL is proposed, many people in high places hem and haw and are quick to criticize it. The Bi-Bi philosophy, for example, has been scoffed at by many. It has only been around for a relatively short time and is already being blamed for problems that have existed for over a century. It seems to me, quite frankly, that many people are misinformed and perhaps even intimidated by ASL.

Come on. Illiteracy is a serious problem that must be addressed everywhere, not just in the deaf community. If ASL is the cause of poor reading and writing skills, then what about the incredibly high number of hearing kids and adults who can’t read? It’s amazing how many people can speak English fluently yet still can’t read or write.

On the other hand, I know many hearing people who are fluent in more than one language; their fluency in a second language does not cause their English to suffer. I feel a need to point this out because I have seen people implying that time spent communicating in ASL takes away from one’s ability to use English. Doesn’t happen. I cite myself, my wife, several relatives and friends as examples. We code-switch all the time and it doesn’t hurt. If anything, I believe it strengthens our minds.

Okay, I’ve rambled enough. While it’s been great defending the merits of ASL, we still have a serious problem with illiteracy, and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed everywhere. Perhaps we can tackle this in a future article.

In the meantime… ASL, the verdict is in: not guilty.

Note: This article was originally published in Anything But Silent (Handwave Publications, 2004).

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