The Right To Language

Here in America, we have many personal and corporate rights given to us and protected by our U.S. Constitution. Among these rights are the right the free speech, the right to keep and bear arms, right to the free practice of religion, and many more. What about the right to language? That is not specifically mentioned in our Constitution or in any state laws. However, none of these rights or laws are even accessible without language.

Do we have a right to language? That is what this article discusses, specifically regarding the right to sign language for deaf and hard of hearing children. This the most language deprived group in our country. Many deaf children are growing up without full access to any language – spoken or signed.

Language Rights

96% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. The vast majority of those children are pushed into a hearing approach that usually focuses on auditory development only – cochlear implants along with daily practice of speech therapy and ‘listening’ skills. Unfortunately, research has shown this approach to be minimally effective for language development.

Most deaf children are exposed to very little meaningful language during the most critical time for language development – the first 5 years of life. That is language deprivation. It affects every aspect of life – children’s relationship to parents, family, and friends; their self-esteem; their education; their future job choices and economic outlook – everything!

As a result, we continue to see many deaf kids graduating high school with a 4th grade reading level. As the father of a Deaf son, that is unacceptable to me! I aim to see this radically changed during my son’s educational career.  

This video really breaks it down and shows what Language Deprivation looks like and its harmful effects on deaf children.

Last week, I shared the article ‘The Right of the Deaf Child to Grow Up Bilingual’. The author – a psycholinguist and an expert in bilingualism – stated that bilingualism is the only way of meeting the linguistic needs of deaf children. He concluded: “The deaf child should have the right to grow up bilingual and it is our responsibility to help him/her do so.

This article is strongly related to that one in its overall emphasis. However, this article focuses on changing laws (state, federal and international) to promote the right to language for deaf children. LEAD-K is a civil rights movement that is working on that right now is the state of California. The authors of this article show how state and federal laws in the United States – while not directly stating a right to language – implicitly provide a right to language, and specifically, the right to sign language for deaf children.

I found this article while reading another article that referenced it. In “Deaf Students as a Linguistic and Cultural Minority…”, the author, Michael Higgins stated this:

One way to achieve wider acceptance and exposure to the alternative paradigm [Deaf students as a linguistic and cultural minority versus a disability group] is to ensure that research on language development in deaf children is widely disseminated across professions and in venues and publications that reach a broad readership of parents, professionals, and policy makers.”

That is what I hope to achieve with this blog in general and this post in particular. (Please share this and help spread this vitally important information).

He continued,

Of note is a set of articles recently written by a cohort of deaf academics regarding the importance of sign language for deaf children and published in sources specifically directed toward medical professionals, linguists, and policy makers.”

One place that this article – “The Right to Language” was published was The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics (July 31, 2014). I downloaded it from the National Institutes of Health website. It is an extremely well written and well documented article. I highly recommend that you download it and read it for yourself. However, I will provide brief overall and summary here.

The Right to Language

In this paper, the authors “argue for the existence of a state constitutional legal right to language.” It is framed as an issue of civil rights for deaf children. This is an important framework based on what we have learned about language deprivation among deaf children.  

Language Development and the Deaf Child

They first discuss general language development for deaf children. The failures of our current approaches and educational paradigms that have led to language deprivation are discussed.

State Law and the Right to Language

They then move on to discuss State laws and the Right to Language. Here, they focus on the generally mandated provision of public education that each state (in the U.S.) provides through taxation. They point out that education is conveyed by way of language. Therefore, these state laws are founded on the premise that everyone has an (implied) right to language.

Federal Law and the Right to Language

The United States has several very important – monumental even – laws in place to protect disabled individuals. In addition to a few specific court cases, the authors discuss these federal laws that provide for access to education and language for deaf individuals.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) of 1975 (and its successor, Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Act of 2004) provide a “free, appropriate public education” to children who need specialized services because of a disability. This is not possible without language. In fact, IDEA includes the provision for sign language interpreters, as well as, the requirement to provide instruction in American Sign Language, where appropriate for the individual.  

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) prevents exclusion of disabled persons from federally funded programs, including public education. This Act requires the provision of sign language interpreters and/or other auxiliary aids so that deaf individuals can have equal access to these programs.  

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990/2008 requires requires that same support from and access to all state and local government programs, even if they do not receive federal funding. The ADA has published guidelines on providing Effective Communication for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in education and health care. These guidelines detail accommodations that are required through the provision of services and auxiliary aids in order to accomplish effective communication. These include sign language interpreters, as well as, providing educational instruction in ASL where required by the individual.

While these federal laws do not explicitly provide a Right to Language, “Taken together, Section 504, the ADA, and the IDEA…. Establish a robust foundation for a right to language in that they provide not only equal access to students with disabilities, but entitlement to appropriate special education and related services.” They are “founded on the presumption that everyone has a right to language.”

International Law and the Right to Language

The authors then discuss several international laws as well as United Nations Treaties that imply a right to language as well. Some of them include language that even more clearly establishes sign language and distinct culture as a hallmark of the deaf community.

There is some fascinating language in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) that was first drafted in 2006. The U.S. has signed the treaty but not yet ratified it due to concerns about national autonomous rights. These concerns are valid. However, I am in favor of its recommendation that states facilitate sign language learning and promote the linguistic identity of deaf communities. That would certainly yield strong support for the right to language for deaf children. 

Benefits to Deaf Children of the Right to Language

The authors made a very important point in this last section before their final conclusion.

The right to language clarifies the state’s responsibility not only to protect that right but to provide full and complete information on deaf children’s linguistic development rather than merely auditory development. This information would include the fact that sign languages assure linguistic development and, therefore, allow equalization of opportunities. This information would also give an overview of cochlear implants as an auditory tool, without assurance of linguistic development.”

That, I believe is the key! The focus on linguistic (language) development is vitally important for all deaf children. If a deaf child receives a cochlear implant and also focuses on auditory development, there is no guarantee of language development. Including a focus on sign language as well, provides that necessary linguistic development.  

Parents must be educated on this very important point. Most parents of deaf children are quickly ushered into the medical approach to deafness and exposed only to the ‘hearing perspective’. Hearing parents are very, very, very rarely (if ever) given access the Deaf perspective. However, providing this information to parents is absolutely necessary in order for them to make truly informed decisions regarding language development for their deaf child.

Knowledge is power! Parents who are educated on this issue and armed with this information are fully empowered to advocate for their children. Not only that, but they are empowered to teach their deaf children to advocate for themselves as well!

Please share this article with parents of deaf children and with anyone you know who is involved with educating deaf children or developing education policy.