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Why I Believe Language Acquisition Bills Should Include All Options for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children

I believe true inclusion is to accept people’s right to choose things for themselves. The utopian vision for disability rights is that there wouldn’t even be a debate about “right” or “wrong” in regards to ableism because people would be accepted as they are, not based on what communication choices they made.

Shafik Asante makes the same claim in his article about “What Is Inclusion” for the Inclusion Network:

Across this country a definition of inclusion is offered. It is generally accepted that “inclusion” means inviting those who have been historically locked out to “come in.” This well-intentioned meaning must be strengthened. A weakness of this definition is evident. Who has the authority or right to “invite” others in? And how did the “inviters” get in? Finally, who is doing the excluding? It is time we both recognize and accept that we are all born “in!” No one has the right to invite others in!

There is a growing rumble of a debate taking place across the country around a legislative effort to ensure access to communication for children who are deaf or hard of hearing who have not yet reached school age.

The primary genesis of this movement was to ensure that all children are exposed to American Sign Language, but out of necessity it has evolved to be somewhat more inclusive of all modes of communication.  It is my humble opinion that the narrative around Lead-K and the National Association of the Deaf’s ASL-English bilingualism effort has a ways to go before it can truly be perceived as inclusive by those who are users of modes of communication and languages other than American Sign Language.

I get it.  I truly get it.  The absolute key to language acquisition is exposure to accessible, unambiguous, and fluent expressive and receptive communication.  That is probably the easiest aspect of this entire conversation for everybody to agree on.

However, there is a deep seated belief that American Sign Language is the sole birthright for deaf and hard of hearing children. It is with a regretful sigh that I say, “it’s not that simple.”  American Sign Language is one point of communications access that lets individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing communicate with one another. But Lead-K and NAD appear to act as though it’s the only one.

Other languages and modes of communication are given cursory nods throughout the narrative but are largely add-ons to the critical point that advocates are making, “it must be in addition to American Sign Language.”

True inclusion, as Mr. Asante expressed, is the fact that we are all “born in” to the state of being.  Our choices and those of our parents are not supposed to be engines of exclusion.

The National Cued Speech Association recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the inception of Cued Speech. I played a role on the planning committee and from the very beginning, we recognized that cuers are an amalgamation of many pieces.  Some of us are oral cuers, some of us are cuesigners, and many of us are a combination thereof. We knew we wanted to be inclusive of all stakeholders in the deaf and hard of hearing community. As a result of that awareness, nearly half of our event budget was earmarked for accessibility accommodations, which included Cued Language Transliterators, American Sign Language Interpreters, and CART.  We checked beforehand to ensure the rooms had good acoustics and our auditory amplification equipment was up to the task.

That was something we at the National Cued Speech Association felt strongly about and hoped to build goodwill with.

When I read some of these proposed bills, it often begins with a line that repeats the, “American Sign Language and English” pretext. Later, English is defined loosely as “written, oral, or English with visual supplements.”  I feel like I’m being told that American Sign Language is mandatory and everything else should follow, and if I don’t subscribe to that, then I’m committing a sin against the American Sign Language community.

Is that really true? Does that follow the definition of inclusion that we discussed earlier in this blog? Shouldn’t these language acquisitions bills intend from the very beginning to provide full and unambiguous access to any mode of communication that is intended to open the lines of communication between families and their children in order to grow a language base in any given language?  We know that’s eminently possible. Why are some people on all sides acting like it’s not?

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