Is ASL a Language?
A regular question that comes up when raising a deaf child. It comes up when talking with friends, with family, with other parents, when talking with doctors and specialists, and it comes up during her developmental assessments. It’s a question I may have asked prior to having a deaf child, after all how can a language be nonverbal? Its not a question that bothers us, we are happy when we are asked questions about Rebecca as it allows us to bridge the knowledge gap and educate people about her and what it means to be deaf. It’s really not a surprise that this question comes up especially when you are only exposed to spoken language, it becomes part of your value system and any other form of communication naturally seems inferior to it.
As I mentioned we are grateful when people ask the question as opposed to not asking, as it allows us to have the conversation, but what does upset us is when we allow this notion that all people must speak and hear creep into standards and operational procedures especially those designed for people who work with deaf and hard of hearing children.
Rebecca is part of the Early Intervention program in Massachusetts, a great program that provides us and her with services that she needs. The program requires Rebecca to have six month assessments to help evaluate her development. The assessment grades her motor skills, cognitive abilities, and social and language skills.
In our home we use both spoken English and American Sign Language, with Rebecca using
predominately American Sign Language (ASL). Rebecca’s native language is ASL and ours is English, they are both equally important to our success at communicating at home. To
Rebecca her hands are as important to her as a hearing person’s mouth is to them to enable them to communicate. One of the most frustrating times for Rebecca is when either of her hands are being washed or her fingernails being clipped because she is effectively losing her ability to communicate, this is something we have become cognizant of and now make sure to give her breaks in between times when her hands are restricted.
During the assessments performed by Early Intervention, American Sign language according to the firm that administers the testing, is not considered a form of expressive language and therefore is not used to evaluate her language. In Rebecca’s case, at an age of fourteen months, she scored eight months for expressive language. The low score simply comes down to her being unable to speak. The irony of this is farcical as Rebecca’s current medium of communication is predicated on the use of expression, ASL mind you is an expressive language, expression is one of the most important pillars of the language, how could she score low on expressive language? She had more than twenty signs at the assessment and being expressive is not an issue for her at all. The majority of speaking children at fourteen months have “Mamma” and “Dada” in their vocabulary. It became frustrating to us that the state was discounting her native form of communication as a means to test her abilities. Her cognitive development on the other hand scored at eighteen months, of which I would contend the very reason for her high cognitive score was a direct result of her ability to communicate…
This is far less a concern over a low score on her assessment and more a matter of principal. I decided to take a deeper dive into the standard. I found that the standard is authored by the department of public health. The specific standard was the “Early Intervention Operational Standard” and it provides administers of the tests specific guidelines to follow when performing them. I suspected I would find confirmation that the standards negated the use of ASL in these tests but instead I found the definition of native language:
Native language, when used with respect to an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired, or an individual with no written language, native language means the mode of communication that is normally used by the individual (such as sign language, Braille, or oral communication).
So what we are really seeing here is an ideology predicated on the perceived value of spoken language. The idea that sign language could not be used for the assessment was more likely based on the test administrators company’s own value system as opposed to facts. Had someone reviewed the standard they would not have been telling us that sign language was not an acceptable language. We were told that the test specifically states that any adaptations would not be able to be used on her assessment score. Adaptation? An adaptation for Rebecca is spoken language, not the other way around.
So to answer the question- YES, ASL is a language, why, because these little hands showed us that it is, and so much more:
These little hands allow us to communicate with our daughter in a way that we could never have imagined.
These little hands let us know wants and needs.
These little hands let us know she recognizes us when we walk through the door.
These little hands have taught us so much.
We are so thankful for ASL. Rebecca could not hear anything until just a few months ago, and through ASL, she knew everything that her ears couldn’t tell her. I hate to think where we would be had it not been for ASL.