I’m scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I see it for the umpteenth time: an article describing how Starbucks will open an ASL-friendly store in October. At least three people have posted the article on my wall or shared it with me. The same goes for the cute Target doormat with “welcome” spelled out in the ASL finger alphabet. And the kids t-shirts with the “I love you” handshape on them. And the video of the college engineering student who designed gloves that simulate ASL signs. And the one of a bride signing a song to her husband or her father at her wedding.
Every day I see these videos, articles, and products going viral. The internet seems to love the idea of American Sign Language. It’s cool. It’s hip. It’s a fun way to communicate. It’s different from the spoken modality that we are all so used to.
However, what most people don’t realize is that ASL is still missing from the one place it is so desperately needed: the brains of young deaf children. An alarming number of deaf children are subjected to inadvertent language deprivation during their critical language-learning period. This means that during the first few years of life, when a child’s brain is most primed and able to learn language, deaf children are not receiving adequate input.
The repercussions of depriving a young brain of language are severe and long lasting. Children that do not receive access to a robust language signal within the first five years of life demonstrate a variety of potentially irreversible cognitive-linguistic deficits. This includes deficits in the ability to understand language, use language, and organize thoughts into cohesive sentences. Additionally, and perhaps more poignantly, it also includes deficits in cognitive functions such as spatial concepts and awareness, time concepts and sequencing, number sense and counting, and memory.
Language is brain food. A brain with rich language input is like a body with healthy nutritive input. Therefore, depriving a child of language while his or her brain is still developing can permanently and significantly alter that child’s neurological growth.
While hearing aids and cochlear implants are fantastic technology, they are also subject to the unknowns of technology. They break. They malfunction. Children reject them. Sometimes they simply do not connect with the child’s brain for some inexplicable reason. Signed languages are the only languages that are one hundred percent accessible to a deaf child at all times.
So my question is: If ASL is so “cool,” why isn’t it cool enough for a deaf child? Perhaps we should start sharing articles detailing the importance of providing a deaf child early access to a signed language the same way we share the article about an ASL-friendly Starbucks. Perhaps we should infuse deaf children with the same awe and admiration for ASL as we spread around the internet. Perhaps if we did this, we could change a child’s life.