American Sign Language on the Brink of Extinction

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Two young girls learn American Sign Language in Pittsburgh. (David Fulmer/flickr)

American Sign Language could be a dying form of communication, thanks to dwindling education funding and technological alternatives. Many deaf people are adamant that sign language will always be essential, but state budget cuts are threatening to close schools that teach it. This adds to the existing debate in the deaf community, between those who communicate with sounds and high-tech cochlear implants, and those who utilize sign language.

Monica Davey, Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times, has been reporting on the sign language debate. Marvin Miller, president of the Indiana Association of the Deaf, says the end of sign language would be a significant loss. Miller speaks through the assistance of an interpreter. (Read the transcription of the interview below.)

HOCKENBERRY: So we want you to pay close attention to this next segment because we’re going to try to give you a tangible sense of the importance of American Sign Language (ASL) for the hearing impaired and the deaf community’s ability to communicate with the rest of us. Technology and deaf culture may be approaching an historic tipping point and the window on an unusual struggle taking place within the deaf community is in the state of Indiana this morning. A financial trade off in that state has underscored a choice that has been looming within the deaf community for years: Maintain the use of American Sign Language as the mode of communication within the deaf world or trade it for the possibility of auditory communication using rapidly developing technology like cochlear implants that are growing in popularity, and other sensory enhancements? At immediate issue are the schools for the deaf, which teach ASL, especially as states look for places to trim their budgets. Reporting on this is Monica Davey, Chicago bureau chief for our partner, The New York Times. Is that a fair characterization of the story, Monica?

DAVEY: I think it is. I think what's happened in Indiana is that several members of the School for the Deaf board have been considered people who favor the hearing and listening approach, and that’s really set up a bit of a firestorm there.

HOCKENBERRY: So, we wanted to explore this dispute within the deaf community, the hearing impaired community, over people who use technological enhancements or people who rely on ASL for communication or people who use both. On the line is Marvin Miller. He's the president of the Indiana Association of the Deaf. And, to make sign language work on the air, you will hear Marvin speaking through a Video Relay Service. You'll actually hear the voice of his translator. Marvin Miller will be speaking in ASL. First of all, good morning Marvin Miller. We can’t imagine the French without the language of France, French. Similarly, explain the importance, as you see it, of ASL.

MILLER: Yes, you're exactly right. Good morning, and it's nice to be on. Yes, you're very right. It's very important when you think about the support of ASL, and even English. ASL and English are both languages. Both of these things are taught in school. They're taught all the way through all the different grade levels, to adults as well. ASL is just a different approach. When people are put onto the board, they are supposed to support whatever approach they feel. But they feel, maybe, that they’re approach is to establish these rules to forbid these things from happening. So maybe they forbid contact with deaf people, or maybe they forbid the use of ASL in their school, and they can’t make a decision for everybody, this has to be something that will apply to various people. 

HOCKENBERRY: We're talking to a translator for Marvin Miller, who is the president of the Indiana Association of the Deaf, and he’s going to hear, through ASL, my next question, which is: Help people understand why anyone would prefer ASL when they can have a cochlear implant, and describe people in the deaf community who actually use both, if you could.

MILLER: Okay. Most of us, in the deaf community, we prefer to sign. We’ve become fluent in ASL as we were younger, and there are people who do use hearing aids, there are people who use cochlear implants. But it’s not the only tool. It could add a benefit, but there’s about a 20 percent chance of a deaf person being able to use their hearing to a level that would assist them. It's like one out of five kids experience success with this, so four kids are left with this delay in language, this delay in learning, and this delay in life, because of this technology. So it depends on your perspective. I think it may be a tool, but it's definitely not a solution.

HOCKENBERRY: The words there of Marvin Miller, who is the president of the Indiana Association of the Deaf. We’re also speaking with Monica Davey, who is the Chicago bureau chief for our partner, The New York Times. Does this dispute within the deaf community surprise you in some sense? Do Americans need to know more about American Sign Language not as a precursor to its cochlear implant, but really as a diversity question for communication?

DAVEY: I think there are lots of people in the deaf community who would tell you that these are personal choices, and either of these options is perfectly fine and they can all happily coexist. But I think there are others who feel differently. And, within the deaf community, this has been a long building conflict, and this has sort of brought things to a head. And, I think financial concerns have also brought things to a head. There is a sense, by some, that schools for the deaf are losing money just like everything else is, as these state budgets come down the line. There’s a fear that with those schools for the deaf, that ASL could be lost as well.

HOCKENBERRY: Well let's put that question to Marvin Miller, president of the Indiana Association of the Deaf. Is it the responsibility of taxpayers in Indiana to maintain ASL in schools for the deaf? Or is that something the deaf community should take its own responsibility for and what are the precedents?

MILLER: That’s actually a very interesting question. There are a lot of schools that support a bilingual program, so they use ASL and the they also use written English, and they will use this approach and teach them both in the classroom. But I think the most important thing is that even with this approach, it's what matches the student best. So I think that one of the most important things is that there need to be options. So what works for one group with people, may not work for another. We don’t want to get this group of kids who it may not work for, and treat them as some kind of an outcast, whether that be English or ASL or some kind of assisted-listening device. So as far as philosophy goes, that's always a really sticky word. There's just always so much power within the pharmaceutical companies to push these certain things like cochlear implants or assisted listening devices in the deaf community. It's sad. It really breaks my heart.

HOCKENBERRY: Alright, that’s Marvin Miller, president of the Indiana Association of the Deaf, who is actually very concerned about the state making a possible decision to change its orientation of schools for the deaf to favor auditory devices and technologies like cochlear implant. Where does this story go from here, Monica Davey?

DAVEY: Well it continues. I think we’re gonna see some of this bubbling up in different states, and I'm not sure what the answer ends up being or whether we keep going along with both methods and sort of a clash that goes on and on.

HOCKENBERRY: Do you see a similarity between the way the educational system deals with the bilingual education, say between Spanish speakers and English speakers, and this issue of ASL?

DAVEY: I think there are some similarities. I think, though, of course, there are also physiological issues here. Some people don’t get to choose what they're picking here, so there’s a complicated element you add when you’re talking about the technology. It doesn't work for everyone. It does work for some people. That brings a different element into the equation.

HOCKENBERRY: Well, we want to follow this story and we'll be anxious to speak with both of you again. Monica Davey, Chicago bureau chief for out partner, The New York Times. And, thanks to Marvin Miller, president of the Indiana Association for the Deaf. Thanks, Marvin.

MILLER: No problem. Any time.

HOCKENBERRY: And thanks to Marvin’s translator as well.

 

Guests:

Monica Davey and Marvin Miller

Produced by:

David J Fazekas

Comments [14]

Richard Roehm from Costa Mesa

The Orange County Deaf Advocacy Center http://www.deafadvocacy.org gets all excited whenever there is news of babies with hearing loss getting cochlear implants and news that parents are opting to get their child with hearing loss cochlear implants. We have a rich website that supports the reasoning for cochlear implants http://www.tinyurl.com/deafbabies with plenty of heart warming videos and this website beats out other websites that promote cultures of dependency and zeals of living in a dark closed deaf society. The best life journey for babies with hearing loss begins with sound, listening, and speaking.

Jul. 30 2011 07:12 AM
Marguie from Vancouver

As a hearing person who is delighted to add ASL to my language repertoire, I see the attempt to extinguish a language (and a whole cultural way of communicating) as a tragedy and a huge disservice to all. Let´s make options open and not limit possibilities for better communication.
I started out learning ASL as an enhancement tool for teaching French as an additional language and have moved on to learning ASL so that I can communicate within the deaf community.
Cochlear implants may be an option, but let´s let deaf people make their own choices.

Jul. 29 2011 09:45 AM
Red Angel from Southland

The Orange County Deaf Advocacy Center http://www.deafadvocacy.org gets all excited whenever there is news of babies with hearing getting cochlear implants and news that parents are opting to get their child with hearing loss cochlear implants. We have a rich website that supports the reasoning for cochlear implants http://www.tinyurl.com/deafbabies with plenty of heart warming videos and this website beats out other websites that promote cultures of dependency and zeals of living in a dark closed deaf society. The best life journey for babies with hearing loss begins with sound, listening, and speaking.

Jul. 28 2011 10:34 PM
Karen Putz from Chicago

When I went from hard of hearing to deaf as a teen, ASL actually opened up the world for me. The same has been true for my kids-- ASL has allowed them to develop friendships with folks from all over who use ASL. I don't think choices have to be either/or -- the more languages a person is exposed to, the more the mind expands and develops.

As for the question about who should support schools for deaf students-- we have a responsibility to provide education for all children, regardless of their mode of communication.

Jul. 28 2011 04:10 PM
Richard Roehm from Fremont, California

I am hearing impaired and I made a captioned video and I'm positive you all will get the whole essence of the message.

The Deaf Schools Are A Disservice To The Taxpayers (OPEN CAPTIONS)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeO3JyqpwYs and enjoy!

And a lot of the evidence to some of the points in the vlog can be found in here http://www.tinyurl.com/deafbabies and too bad if the sign language deafies can't handle the truth. They would probably attack the truthseekers like me instead as they been doing that for 15 years already and I'm used to it as it dont stop me at all. Call me a troll, I dont care but this the truth and fact and it needs to be shared than kept in the black box.

Jul. 28 2011 03:34 PM
JK from Washington, DC

Mr. Miller's statement on the success rate of cochlear implants was either misinterpreted or based on inaccurate information. He says "It's like one out of five kids experience success with this" when in fact the vast majority of CI kids are successful. For a a better informed debate on this topic see this 10 year old PBS documentary:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/soundandfury/cochlear/debate1.html

Success rates have continued to rise since this documentary was made.

There's no doubt that ASL is an important tool in deaf education, but in the case of most CI kids, it's a back up.

Jul. 28 2011 10:16 AM
Sera

Here is a cartoon I saw on a t-shirt at a recent Deaf event: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_bt8uTOShrHA/TF8xk3xnNAI/AAAAAAAAABs/zOwZ3s2YEuw/s1600/Greatest+Irony.jpg

Says it all, I think. How DARE anyone think they know better than the Deaf what they need?

I'm hearing, by the way, and just learning sign language. I fell in love with its beauty and since starting to learn it have developed a huge respect for the Deaf. Let the Deaf decide what's best for them!!!

Jul. 28 2011 02:35 AM

Oops! I understand where double-posts come from now!

Jul. 27 2011 02:18 PM

I am not deaf, nor do I have family who are deaf.

I do, however, come from a very unique perspective: I speak several languages fluently,

and have regular contact with many persons who do not speak the language of the

community where they reside. I understand how it breaks up families, separates

generations of people and makes life woefully difficult, if not miserable, for all involved.

I don't speak ASL but have friends that DO "speak" in sign language. I have learned from

them how truly spectacular sign language is.

Anyone who is unable to speak the language of those around them is essentially isolated

from society. You and I wouldn't mind it for a few minutes, but imagine the despair after

just a few hours of not being able to communicate the simples of ideas ! I have seen first

hand how frustrating everyday tasks become, for persons unable to communicate well

with those around them. Families are split. Such social isolation is tantamount to a

condemnation of solitary confinement.

In our audible world, you and I look at little squiggly lines on paper or on a computer

screen. Our brains convert images to ideas instantly. Those who lose hearing later in life

can do the same. But people unable to hear from birth don'tthink in individual words as

we do; their gestures and facial expressions transmit complex thoughts, not individual

words.

Those Indiana officials will annul decades of painstaking efforts to better our society.

Their EXCUSE of a "replacement therapy", as proposed, is woefully inadequate. Indiana

Taxpayers can't begin to comprehend the devastating consequences to the lives of

thousands of individuals and families, merely to save a pittance of money.

By their reasoning, we could eliminate elevators for invalids, on the basis that friends or

neighbors could lift them and their wheelchairs to the next level. We could do away with

Braille writing because there are computer programs that can convert data into simulated

human speech. Why we could abolish the schools themselves; computerized courses

and educational TV are adequate.

In fact, we could do away with the judicial system and the police; just give everyone a

gun! That could save tons of money! The point? Saving money shouldn't be the main driving force in a decision like this

To those who favor the demise of ASL, I say spend 2 weeks over in another country like

say China, Turkey, Israel, Greece where the alphabet is not Roman. No interpretors and

no translaters. No English period. No radio, phone calls nor online chat in English. Did I

mention no job and no money? That's what Indiana wants to do to its deaf citizens.

Sure, you can use skype, but no audio

Then, and only then, will you be able to realize what a horrible impact you are about to

inflict on your fellow human.

Jul. 27 2011 02:06 PM

I am not deaf, nor do I have family who are deaf.

I do, however, come from a very unique perspective: I speak several languages fluently, and have regular contact with many persons who do not speak the language of the community where they reside. I understand how it breaks up families, separates generations of people and makes life woefully difficult, if not miserable, for all involved.

I don't speak ASL but have friends that DO "speak" in sign language. I have learned from them how truly spectacular sign language is.

Anyone who is unable to speak the language of those around them is essentially isolated from society. You and I wouldn't mind it for a few minutes, but imagine the despair after just a few hours of not being able to communicate the simples of ideas ! I have seen first hand how frustrating everyday tasks become, for persons unable to communicate well with those around them. Families are split. Such social isolation is tantamount to a condemnation of solitary confinement.

In our audible world, you and I look at little squiggly lines on paper or on a computer screen. Our brains convert images to ideas instantly. Those who lose hearing later in life can do the same. But people unable to hear from birth don'tthink in individual words as we do; their gestures and facial expressions transmit complex thoughts, not individual words.

Those Indiana officials will annul decades of painstaking efforts to better our society. Their EXCUSE of a "replacement therapy", as proposed, is woefully inadequate. Indiana Taxpayers can't begin to comprehend the devastating consequences to the lives of thousands of individuals and families, merely to save a pittance of money.

By their reasoning, we could eliminate elevators for invalids, on the basis that friends or neighbors could lift them and their wheelchairs to the next level. We could do away with Braille writing because there are computer programs that can convert data into simulated human speech. Why we could abolish the schools themselves; computerized courses and educational TV are adequate.

In fact, we could do away with the judicial system and the police; just give everyone a gun! That could save tons of money! The point? Saving money shouldn't be the main driving force in a decision like this

To those who favor the demise of ASL, I say spend 2 weeks over in another country like say China, Turkey, Israel, Greece where the alphabet is not Roman. No interpretors and no translaters. No English period. No radio, phone calls nor online chat in English. Did I mention no job and no money? That's what Indiana wants to do to its deaf citizens. Sure, you can use skype, but no audio

Then, and only then, will you be able to realize what a horrible impact you are about to inflict on your fellow human.

Jul. 27 2011 02:03 PM
DB

First: Thanks to The Takeaway for covering this story. Even if I wasn't already late for work, I would have stayed in the car listening to the end (which would have made me late anyway)!

Sign Language (ASL) will never go 'extinct' as the title of this story implies. That would be like saying the game of baseball would never, ever be played again simply because a state university cuts its baseball budget. ASL is the first language for many people, and Cochlear implants are not a viable option for most of them. ASL will continue to be their primary language regardless of state budgets.

Also --
@John Hockenberry: Mr. Miller spoke through an INTERPRETER, not a translator. An interpreter is for spoken (or signed) language. A translator is for written language. ...I've gotten my arse chewed out enough times for saying "translator" that I had to pass it on. ;-)

Jul. 27 2011 12:03 PM
DB

First: Thanks to The Takeaway for covering this story. Even if I wasn't already late for work, I would have stayed in the car listening to the end (which would have made me late anyway)!

Sign Language (ASL) will never go 'extinct' as the title of this story implies. That would be like saying the game of baseball would never, ever be played again simply because a state university cuts its baseball budget. ASL is the first language for many people, and Cochlear implants are not a viable option for most of them. ASL will continue to be their primary language regardless of state budgets.

Also --
@John Hockenberry: Mr. Miller spoke through an INTERPRETER, not a translator. An interpreter is for spoken (or signed) language. A translator is for written language. ...I've gotten my arse chewed out enough times for saying "translator" that I had to pass it on. ;-)

Jul. 27 2011 11:53 AM

I believe that the proper term for the person who "translates" between the spoken word and ASL is properly called an interpreter, rather than a translator. Otherwise, excellent and thought-provoking story. Thanks for airing it.

Jul. 27 2011 11:20 AM
Lynn Frost

It should be unthinkable to eliminate American Sign Language as means and standard for teaching deaf students. Cochlear implants are a tool not the fix for all deaf people. ASL should be maintained in order to entitle the deaf community to keep "their edge." ASL is a wonderful means of communication.

Jul. 27 2011 10:11 AM

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