American Sign Language and the Fight to be Heard

Learning sign language is easy to integrate into our education system, beneficial to all parties involved, and valuable to the hearing-impaired community.

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By Virgenya Zhu

People who are hearing-impaired face a lot of difficulties in society––difficulties that could be easily avoided if more hearing people were taught American Sign Language (ASL) at a young age. ASL provides benefits to both hearing and non-hearing people, and incorporating it into the education system would be easy and efficient. Nearly five percent of the nation’s population is deaf or hard of hearing, and being able to communicate with this group should be valued and encouraged. Learning sign language also brings awareness to the hearing-impaired community, educating students on the challenges they face.

Most hearing people are not aware of the magnitude of the problems that the hearing-impaired face. For example, since sign language is not accessible in regular schools, their only education option is special-needs schools, which are expensive and not widely available. There are also a lot of careers that hearing-impaired people cannot pursue because of the tasks the jobs involve, and even more job opportunities are restricted because the employers don’t understand sign language. The work application process is also made difficult when interviewers do not provide interpreters.

However, with societal adjustments to COVID-19 in the last few years, the hearing-impaired community has been hit with a slew of new problems. Social isolation is hard for all of us, but it presents even more of a hardship for people with hearing disabilities, who may rely on someone being present to help with things like traveling, applying for jobs and loans, or even going to the grocery store. Without assistance, a deaf person may have to reroute their entire routine.

Another major difficulty that hearing-impaired people have faced during this period is the restrictive nature of masks. Many deaf people rely on lip reading to get a baseline understanding of what someone is saying, but masks have made lip reading impossible.

Many deaf people say they feel isolated in social situations because hearing people rarely interact with them. This struggle is due in part to the stigma that surrounds deafness. Endless misunderstandings arise when hearing people aren’t familiar with sign language, making it hard for hearing-impaired people to find ways to communicate.

The language barrier that makes it so hard for deaf people to function in society can be easily resolved through ASL education in schools. Integration could begin as soon as elementary school, with introductory lessons and classes in kindergarten. This program wouldn’t just benefit deaf students, but their hearing counterparts as well. Studies show that hearing kids learn languages faster when they are paired with hand movements, since more pathways are created in the brain. Combining ASL with English courses makes them both easier to teach and to learn.

Sign language is a versatile form of communication and is essential for connecting with special needs kids, reducing the stigma many have faced since childhood. Teaching ASL in schools would begin to close the gap between hearing and non-hearing people. Unfortunately, the reason many people don’t ever try to learn sign language is because they don’t feel like it impacts them. However, that belief isn’t true. A family member, co-worker, or friend could become deaf at any point. Learning sign language beforehand could remove the language barrier and make the transition easier for the deaf person, friends, and family. Additionally, more than 90 percent of deaf babies are born to hearing parents. Whether your parents go deaf because of old age or your children are born deaf, you will probably learn sign language faster if you were introduced to it in school.

Making ASL a mandatory class would lessen the employment gap between hearing and hearing-impaired people and begin to close the language barrier. In a few decades’ time, the world would be a much better place.