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.