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Language Access is a Civil Right, For Both Children and Adults

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Why the ACLU supports the right of Deaf and Hard of Hearing children to access language.
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West Resendes,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Disability Rights Program
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January 10, 2024


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For deaf people, language deprivation during early childhood represents the most significant threat to the exercise of their civil rights and liberties.

Not having adequate exposure to a language early in life has profound, lifelong consequences. Deaf students nationally graduate from high school and college at lower rates. They are among the many youth with disabilities who are disproportionately funneled into the criminal legal system. Long term negative outcomes span educational and employment contexts, and are especially bleak for deaf and hard of hearing children who also share marginalized racial identities, such as those who are Black.

In the ACLU’s ongoing work to affirm the civil rights of Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, and Hard of Hearing people in prison and on supervision, including their right to access effective communication, many of our clients share one common trait: they experienced the permanent, detrimental effects of language deprivation in their early years.

Nearly all of our clients in these cases were among the 96 percent of deaf children born to hearing parents who did not know sign language. These parents love their children, but struggle to provide them with full access to language, signed or spoken.

Despite improvements in early intervention approaches, newborn hearing screenings, and advances in hearing technology, current research shows that deaf children often do not develop age-expected spoken language skills when they are only provided with spoken language. When kids don't have full access to language, especially during the crucial years for early childhood development, they develop language deprivation syndrome — a neurodevelopmental disorder with negative and long-lasting effects on the deaf child’s language, cognitive, and socioemotional development.

Deaf education in the United States has historically been framed as a false dichotomy between bilingual Deaf schools where deaf children learn both American Sign Language (ASL) and English (spoken and/or written), and “mainstreamed” schools using an auditory-oral approach where deaf children only learn English (i.e., withholding ASL and other visual cues like lipreading).

The families of deaf children have, for generations, shared similar experiences: an overwhelming barrage of information, frequently biased towards the auditory-oral approach — giving their child auditory input while completely excluding signed language. Too often this is incorrectly presented as the most effective approach. But clear evidence demonstrates that deaf and hard of hearing children, even those with hearing parents, can effectively learn a sign language, and that doing so supports subsequent learning of spoken language.

The ACLU seeks to support parents in ensuring meaningful access to the language acquisition tools that work for their child. Accordingly, we support:

  • Education plans for deaf and hard of hearing children that meet the specific needs of the child.
  • Education plans that include access to the full range of evidence-based instructional approaches and tools that can be used in various combinations to support language development and communication, including ASL-English bilingual education, Protactile, tactile signing systems, Cued Speech, augmentative and alternative communication, and auditory-oral education.
  • Education plans that are accompanied by empirical evidence listing all possible outcomes, being clear which options will reliably lead to complete acquisition of at least one language, and which will not.
  • Choice — and meaningful access to those choices — with the goal of successfully acquiring a language.

The ACLU considers the evidence-based “gold standard” approach to be providing access to a natural signed language during early infancy, in addition to support for learning English and other heritage languages desired by the family. Doing so positively impacts their language, cognition, socialization, and learning.

We do not support:

In recent years, evidence-based grassroots legislative efforts to aid parents of deaf children in tracking their child’s language development during the first five years have made significant gains.

LEAD-K is a bill that has been passed in more than 20 statessome with the ACLU’s support. It empowers parents with balanced information about the languages, communication modes, and instructional approaches available to their deaf children. It also empowers states to track children’s progress with reliable data, identify when children are not getting sufficient support, and provide appropriate interventions as needed.

At the same time, we recognize a long history of choices being made for people with disabilities instead of by people with disabilities. Those choices can be rooted in eugenics, the medicalization of disability, or a parent’s desire to share their language with their child.

One argument often used to defend the choice to withhold ASL is that it should be the parents’ choice. The ACLU recognizes that sometimes arguments about parents’ right to choose can be weaponized in ways that endanger children — such as outing transgender students. Parents who choose only "listening and spoken language" options for their deaf or hard of hearing children choose that option because they want their child to function easily in society. But the science shows that exposing these children to only this form of communication can make it much harder for them to learn any language.

Arguments around parental choice can be used to deprive a child of a fully accessible language, despite risks of permanent cognitive and socioemotional harm, in hopes that the child will “overcome” their hearing disability. To that end, we encourage parents to learn about evidence-based language acquisition approaches and to be mindful of the legacies of ableism and audism when making choices for their children.

All students have the right to an equal and accessible education. We do not support the restriction of educational opportunities for deaf children, including the closure of schools for the deaf, which can be the best environment for some deaf children to learn in and support their language acquisition. The question of which setting is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is an individualized question, and the U.S. Department of Education confirms that the LRE is not automatically the provision of mainstream schools for deaf children. The primary goal of deaf education is to ensure deaf children can learn language, and learning language is easiest in immersive social environments with other language users.

We recognize that mainstream schools can often be under-resourced, lacking the full continuum of language supports that deaf schools can provide. The ACLU strongly supports increased resources for deaf children to acquire a signed language and for deaf adults to access services in their primary language.

At the ACLU, we’ve seen firsthand the adverse impacts of language deprivation. Access to language — through LEAD-K and through the availability of all educational methodologies as options individualized for each child — is a fundamental stepping stone to vindicating the civil rights and civil liberties of deaf and hard of hearing people and enabling the next generation of deaf children to become full, participating members of our democracy.

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