Sugar or Spice: What Would Be Nice for Deaf Children

deaf and hard of hearing services lancaster pennsylvania

by Jojo Faircloth

An ongoing feud has been fired up recently involving the Deaf community and the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. For the Deaf community, this has also lead to a dramatic increase of debates on Facebook about bilingualism, and whether ASL for Deaf children should be a requirement or an option. Nyle DiMarco appeared on Good Morning America in late May, and talked about his foundation and his goal of requiring the teaching and use of ASL for all young Deaf children. The Washington Post wrote an article in response to DiMarco’s appearance, which was featured in their The Reliable Source column. The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing wrote a reaction piece to the Washington Post’s article on Nyle DiMarco.

President Meredith Sugar wrote the response article, Dispelling Myths About Deafness. Sugar clarified that while the AG Bell Association recognizes ASL as a good option for some Deaf children, they are concerned that DiMarco’s political activism will hurt their cause, which is the endorsement of Deaf children using Listening and Spoken Language. Sugar states, “…it [ASL] is just one such option and its use is declining. The reality is that most deaf children – more than 95 percent – are born to parents with typical hearing, and 90 percent of these families are choosing listening and spoken language for their deaf child.” Meredith Sugar has been the president of the association since 2014, and her third son named Jonah is Deaf. Jonah is eight years old and he has bilateral cochlear implants, and he uses LSL (listening and spoken language). Her son’s Deafness and the uncertainty that followed led Sugar to do research into hearing loss and that’s how she found the A.G. Bell association.

The AG Bell Assoc. for the Deaf and HoH promote the use of oralism, which is teaching Deaf children to solely use spoken English, and discourages the use of Sign Language, pointing out that “a young child whose family desires spoken language often achieves their desired outcome better through a full immersion in spoken language.” The Bell Association endorses early diagnoses and intervention, and the use of hearing technology which includes cochlear implants and hearing aids. The article claims that Deaf children who are taught Listening and Spoken Language have proven to perform better in school and are on par with their hearing peers. Sugar mentioned that most Deaf children are born to a hearing family, also that their parents deserve to have the power to choose which option is best for their child, and that DiMarco’s activism will take that choice away from the parents or guardians.

Due to Nyle DiMarco’s actions, California passed a bill in October, Bill SB-210, which makes it a requirement for all Deaf children up to age 5 in the state to be taught American Sign Language. DiMarco believes that when a Deaf child isn’t taught ASL, it is considered language deprivation. He feels that all Deaf children deserve the right to language and accessibility, which is possible through the use of Sign Language. Sugar and her association disagree with this assessment. She feels that there are different kinds of Deaf people, and not all Deaf people use ASL. Sugar concluded, “It is our hope to dispel the myths about deafness and spread the word that deaf children can hear and talk. What it means to be ‘deaf’ has changed.”

Conversely, Sugar’s article got a strong reaction from the Deaf community, a large part of who disagrees with the article. Many Deaf people are supportive of DiMarco’s endorsement of ASL access for young children, and many detest the use of Listening and Spoken Language (LSL). They retaliated that the use of ASL does not impede speech and listening development, and that there is no “short window” for Deaf children to acquire listening and speaking skills, which Sugar claimed in her article. The endorsement of ASL for Deaf children doesn’t mean that the Deaf community is against bilingualism.

Rather, the Deaf community feels that ASL actually helps Deaf children with listening and speaking acquisition.

Bilingualism, being proficient in both ASL and spoken English, is very common in the Deaf community. A letter to Meredith Sugar, written by Gallaudet’s Buff and Blue student newspaper in response to AG Bell’s article, titled AG Bell President Sugar, You’re Not So Sweet reasoned, “Encouraging deaf children to communicate in sign language from a very early age, before cochlear implantation, appears to improve their ability to learn spoken language after cochlear implantation…” Furthermore, the article criticizes Sugar’s facts, retorting that there’s no actual evidence or concrete sources to back up her statements. The article also disagree with Sugar’s statement on Deaf children using LSL with CI (cochlear implants) are able to do as well as hearing children. Their article revealed, “… Children with cochlear implants demonstrate lower vocabulary knowledge than children with normal hearing…” Their point isn’t that Deaf children aren’t capable of performing as well as hearing children in academics, but rather that Deaf children need ASL and maybe bilingualism to do as well in school as hearing children.

Everyone has their own preferences; some people prefer sugar whereas others prefer spice. Some people prefer oralism, while other people prefer ASL for Deaf children. With so much at stake for Deaf children, it’s easy to see why people have strong opinions on this issue. Those who support the A.G. Bell Association’s stance and LSL, and those who support Nyle DiMarco’s stance and ASL both feel very strongly about this and made this issue a heated one. The futures of Deaf children are in the hands of the adults who decide which policy to enact. The different sides to this issue all shares the same common goal: to find a solution to ensure all Deaf children receive the language accessibility they deserve

This article is an excerpt from our Deaf Newsletter.  If you’d like to receive this newsletter in the mail, fill out the following form.