Finding accurate data on the number of American Sign Language (ASL) users in the United States has proven to be a difficult challenge. In my research, I stumbled upon a great paper that analyzes the different sources of estimates. Written by Ross Mitchell at Gallaudet University, the article “Why Estimates Need Updating?” also proposes solutions to improve the system of recording and recognizing ASL users in the United States. The current estimates on ASL users range from 100,000 to 15,000,000—that’s quite a difference. This article clearly lays out the various sources and their estimates in this chart:
Firstly, some of these higher estimates are based on the number of deaf people living in the United States. This is likely because deafness is being conflated with ASL usage. Many people suffer from age-related hearing loss but that does not necessitated ASL usage. Additionally, associating deafness and ASL usage does not account for other users, such as Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs), interpreters, audiologists, and speech therapists. In order to accurately determine the number of ASL users, these factors need to be considered. Some of the estimates were taken based on need for a courtroom interpreter, only accounting for users who could not communicate in English neglecting bilingual users. When these estimates were compared to the language rankings in the United States, ASL was placed high on the list. However, based on research and estimates by Mitchell, “ASL-only users would have easily outnumbered many other non-English-language-only groups.” Meaning that the number of people only using ASL is likely great than those exclusively using another non-English language.
Another key reason for these inaccurate estimates is because the U.S. Census Bureau does not consider ASL as a non-English language. When collecting data on demographics, the Census poses the question: “are there non-English language SPOKEN at home?” Well, ASL is not a spoken language; it’s a manual, visual, gestural language. If an ASL user answers this questions with American Sign Language, the Census Bureau codes it as spoken English, despite the fact that ASL is not spoken. One simple suggestion made by Mitchell is for the Bureau to word the question as: “are any non-English languages USED in the home?” This would allow for ASL to be recognized as a language and to be coded separately from spoken English. Other suggestions include incorporating questions about ASL usage into the annual National Health Interview Survey or create an independent study to address the question. Considering these recommendations an effort should be made to collect accurate data on ASL users.
Mitchell, Ross E., Travas A. Young, Bellamie Bachleda, and Michael A. Karchmer. “How Many People Use ASL in the United States? Why Estimates Need Updating.” Sign Language Studies 6.3 (2005): 306-35. Print.