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.
As I watched the documentary, Sound and Fury, I began having more and more questions about the Deaf community and cochlear implants. Cochlear implants have been a contested issue in the Deaf world since they were introduced about 30 years ago. Members of the Deaf community see cochlear implants as an affront to their culture and community. As ASL users, they do not rely on speech or sound to communicate and they do not view deafness as something to be “cured.” For pre-lingually deaf (deafness before language learning occurs) children, the implant is most effective before age one or as young as six months. In this case, children are not deciding to get implanted but rather a parent is making that choices. Because they cannot decide for themselves, Deaf community fears that the CI affirms deafness as a disability rather than allowing deaf children to learn sign and develop a sense of Deaf culture and pride.
Since the CI was first invented, technology has improved vastly. The number electrodes used has increased allowing for better and more diverse reception of speech and sound. Cochlear implants have gotten smaller and easier to use. The CI works by bypassing the hair cells of the inner ear and directly stimulates the cochlea nerve with electric pulses. A microphone outside of the skull receives sound input and the processor must determine the frequency of the sound and how it is to be interpreted.
When I studied this in several of my speech and audiology classes, we were told that speech through a cochlear implant does not sound like the speech a hearing person listens to. Some people describe it as robotic or electronic, but what does it really sound like? Thanks, YouTube for answering that question!
This video plays the speech stimulus given and how it is heard by a deaf individual through a cochlear implant.
This documentary from 2000 follows the extended Artinian Family of three generations. Below is a family tree to outline who is who:
Over the course of a year and half, the film documents the poignant struggle and clash between family members of the Deaf and Hearing worlds. At six years old, Heather, the oldest child of Peter, decided that she wanted a cochlear implant (CI). This device can be used with profoundly deaf clients experiencing a sensorineural hearing loss. It bypasses the damaged cochlea and use electronic stimulation to receive and process sound. Heather’s parents disapproved of the CI because they feared it would take her away from the Deaf world and their culture. Her father believes that as a deaf person his natural language is signing and his daughter belongs with the family in the Deaf world. While Peter Artinian and Nita, his wife, mull over Heather’s suggestion of a CI, Chris and Mari Artinian give birth to twin boys, one of whom is deaf.
Although Chris and Mari are both fluent in ASL and are closely connected the Deaf community, they decide that Peter (their deaf son) should receive a cochlear implant. Mari’s deaf parents are opposed, but Chris’ hearing parents are supportive. Mari and Chris agree that giving Peter the cochlear implant will afford him more and better opportunities in the future. At the conclusion of the 2000 documentary, Peter receives a CI and begins speech therapy. Peter and Nita Artinian decide against Heather’s implant and move their family to Maryland, where there is a large Deaf population.
In 2006, there was a follow-up to the film. At this point, Heather was 12 years old and her parents had opted for the CI for her and her brothers. Recently, Heather gave a TEDTalk at Georgetown University, where she is studying government and politics. Her talk focuses on “building a bridge” between worlds. In her case, she bridged the gap between the hearing world and the Deaf community as she knows it. She urges everyone “to reach out, allow other people in, try to understand different experiences, allow others to understand yours. No matter what your experiences are, positive or negative, you will make an impact.”
As I worked on my project proposal, the importance of self-identification made its way to the forefront. This concept of knowing oneself and your relationship to others is essential. Being able to relate and empathize with other people in a community is an important goal. So when I stumbled upon this article, I got incredibly excited.
Now, I’m not a huge fan of Marvel or comics. But a superhero with cochlear implants—that I can love.
Marvel teamed up with the Children’s Hearing Institute and the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary to create the newest hero, “Sapheara.” This character with bilateral cochlear implants will appear alongside Blue Ear, another superhero that sports hearing aids. Not only will the comics tell an entertaining story, but they will also serve as an educational tool about devices used by the hearing impaired.
Every time I read a novel or watch a movie or marathon a show on Netflix, I look for characters that I can see myself in. How is this experience different for someone with a hearing impairment or other disability? Do they struggle to find relatable material?
Often kids with hearing impairments and issues are embarrassed or anxious about their diagnosis. Too many times, these children hide their hearing aids or unplug their FM devices. They struggle through classes without their assistive devices because they fear ridicule and scorn. But a new superhero may change that. Sapheara is a character that they can relate to. Suddenly, someone that looks like them, acts like them, struggles like them is coming to life on the page of their favorite comic book. Seeing these heroes as strong and successful while utilizing their differences can be so encouraging to the young readers.
As a soon-to-be clinician, this news is thrilling. I think Marvel’s new superhero will bring empowerment and motivation to this population. Because these comics aren’t just targeted to hearing impaired children, other readers will also benefit from a new understanding of cochlear implants and other assistive devices.
When most people think of communication, they immediately recall words, speech, phrases, phone calls. But sign language is entirely visual; there is no spoken element of it. Pamela Weisman makes a really interesting point in her TEDtalk by saying “If you aren’t looking at the person you’re signing with, there’s no communication. Every second you look away you’re missing important aspects of your conversation, this makes communication more intimate and deeper connections are made. To the hearing, communication has become this thing we hardly even think about anymore.”
One of the first things that drew me to sign language was the visual component of it. In our modern world where many conversations happen with the barrier of a screen, I wanted to understand ASL in terms of total communication. If we all had to communicate using sign language, every hearing person would have to put down his or her iPhones and laptops while having a conversation. And while this would be a challenge for many people in today’s society, I would love to see communication like that.
As Weisman said, sign language allows for deeper more meaningful connections because it demands more attention and thought. Recognizing this aspect of sign language, can be helpful in improving all modes of communication. If we all realized the attentiveness and care that goes into sign language, we could apply that to spoken conversations and develop even better communication skills, even in a hearing community.