The Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD), the second-largest school district in the country, recently adopted a new policy that outlines a model for improving the brain, speech, and socio-emotional development of all deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind children (hereinafter collectively referred to as “deaf”). While this policy is not new to American education, it is new for such a large public school district and an important pioneer in promoting early and consistent language acquisition for deaf children.
LAUSD’s policy focuses on bilingual education in American Sign Language (ASL) and English and states that all deaf children are eligible from birth to receive services through public schools. For children up to the age of three, bilingual programs are the default with an opt-out option. This bilingual ASL/English approach circumvents the age-old binary trap that insists that deaf people must learn to either speak or sign, not both. A bilingual approach addresses the isolation and marginalization that deaf children often experience in classrooms and school environments. It creates a more inclusive and supportive learning environment for children, families, professionals and school programs, building skills and knowledge that will be used throughout life. This is supported by significant research, including cognitive neuroscientific studies of language development, as published by the Visual Language and Visual Learning Center, a National Science Foundation science of learning center housed at Gallaudet University.
Research confirms the benefits of visual learning for ALL children.
In my 2016 article Dispelling the Myths of Language Acquisition, I emphasize the wealth of scientific evidence on the biology of human language, including sign language, reading and bilingualism, showing that early exposure to ASL and English is beneficial is Everyone Children. Deaf children who are not exposed to visual language early on face lifelong consequences for brain development, learning, and higher cognition. For their young brains, early exposure to sign language is just as biologically imperative as early exposure to spoken language. The more we engage deaf children in language-rich ASL/English experiences, the stronger their brain and language skills will become. Some of the key discoveries are:
- The brain does not prioritize spoken language. Sign language and spoken language are processed in the same brain areas.
- Exposure to sign language does not delay the development of spoken language. Additionally, early exposure to ASL promotes better vocabulary and reading skills compared to hearing peers who only learn English.
- Bilingual deaf children enjoy the same benefits as children who are bilingual in other languages, including more robust use of the language areas of the brain, improved social and interpersonal understanding, and stronger speech analysis, reading, and reasoning skills.
- Parents of young deaf children learning sign language do not need to be immediately and fully fluent during this time frame for their children to benefit from early exposure to ASL.
- Young deaf children exposed to sign language achieve each milestone on the same schedule as young hearing children exposed to spoken languages. The time windows for sign language and spoken language are identical.
Neuroscience and research show the critical importance of bilingual learning and need to guide policies and practices in deaf education.
Bilingual (ASL & English) Education Policy
The binary logic of using either spoken or sign language, rather than using a more inclusive practice with both languages, has harmed deaf people for generations. Science and practice must be anchored in our policies and advance bilingual education for deaf children.
Several critical policy areas need to be addressed to ensure our diverse deaf children can thrive from the start. Three in particular are:
1. Interpret the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) provision in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to require ASL/English language environments for all deaf students and further expand options for language-rich bilingual learning environments.
Current interpretations of LRE often require that deaf students in mainstream schools “fail” (the only deaf child in a classroom with hearing classmates) before they can be placed in language-rich bilingual learning environments (i.e., they must demonstrate insufficient academic progress, often for a year or longer, causing them to fall even further behind in their education). Originally developed to stop the segregation of children with disabilities, LRE has evolved into a unified approach that creates restrictive learning environments that are particularly harmful to deaf children. The LRE for Deaf children is the environment where they have full access to direct instruction from teachers and engagement with their peers without the need to bring in a third party interpreter. The richest bilingual language environment possible throughout their educational journey will create the highest level of success for deaf children, but current policy does not reflect this.
There is an urgent need to increase the number of bilingual visual learning environments for deaf and hard of hearing students in every state. Successful exemplary bilingual education programs in the United States are available to support innovative strategies. At Gallaudet University, for example, our Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center and the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind lead a regional early language initiative that works with states, schools, families and communities to create early access language pathways and resources . We invite leaders, educators, and policymakers to work with these and other bilingual resources across the country to create an ASL/English-speaking environment for their deaf students.
2. Deaf children count.
There is no systematic data collection that establishes where deaf children are, what services they receive and how they are doing in education compared to their peers. Without an accurate census of our deaf children in schools across the country, we cannot make good policies, ensure education, and provide adequate support. We must develop a unified strategy to achieve this in a collective and equitable manner that benefits deaf children, their families, and the schools, professionals, and organizations that serve these students.
3. Overcome barriers in teacher verification requirements.
There is an urgent need for more deaf and sign language teachers who are important language and life role models for their deaf students. However, as seen in other minorities, biases in teacher screening exams and other practices create unnecessary barriers for people who are excellent teachers to become certified. We need a greater variety of measures and assessment tools to measure the quality and skills of educators to ensure we have a strong future education workforce.
I am deeply grateful for the deaf family and community I grew up in. I learned ASL and English at the same time and had a truly bilingual experience. I attribute my lifelong academic and professional success to this direct access to language and learning from birth. However, I went to public schools without shelter because people believed I had enough hearing to “get by” and survive.
There were many costs.
Nobody, not once, asked me to share my knowledge in ASL and English. In my junior year, in what I might now call an unconscious rebellion, I decided to give an impromptu speech at a forensic competition using both ASL and English. Ironically, it was about American Sign Language. I won the state championship. What better affirmation could we get of the power of bilingual development?
My personal educational experiences led me to be involved in the opening of the Metro Deaf School in 1993. It was one of the first bilingual charter schools in the country and the first to teach ASL and English. I believed then, as now, that we need to excel at raising bilingual deaf children and steer clear of restrictive environments that all too often lead to failure. It is possible. Many successful professionals like myself have benefited from early access to visual language, exposure to English through reading, writing and spoken English, and the subsequent brain development and critical thinking skills that followed. Let us make this path of professional success possible for every deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind child.
International Day of Sign Languages is September 23, 2022.
Roberta “Bobbi” J. Cordano is the first Deaf President of Gallaudet University, the only natal PhD institution in the world to use American Sign Language in every aspect of its day-to-day education and operations. Her previous experience includes positions as Assistant Attorney General in Minnesota, Vice President of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, Education Administrator at the University of Minnesota, and founder of two charter schools.