The Power of Sign Language to Create a More Connected and Inclusive World

Access to any language, signed or spoken, is ultimately about the fundamental right to human connection.

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Like most college and university presidents, I find this fall to be an especially promising time as our schools have resumed face-to-face instruction across the country. We no longer take for granted the power of learning in the physical presence of others. While learning can be effectively achieved virtually, after the hiatus of face-to-face learning for many of us over the past 18 months, we enter this new academic year with a deeper and more profound appreciation for the physical presence of our communities. Language is central to all of this.

At Gallaudet, our reunion this fall on campus is especially poignant and perhaps more deeply cherished. For our linguistic minority that uses and learns through both American Sign Language (ASL) and reading and writing English (bilingual education), being back on campus means restoring our 3D visual language and learning experience and our visual sign language vibrancy. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we seamlessly shifted our entire educational mission into the cloud, into the digital virtual world, including our pre-K-12 educational programs. However, a majority of our students left campus to reside in predominantly spoken language environments and maintained their lifeline to the signing visual experience through video screens. Once the screen is turned off, so too, is their access to the visually vibrant signing campus. While we were able to replicate much of our sign language vibrancy online, we lost the 3D and physical vibe that we achieve when we gather and socialize, whether it’s intentional and planned or just incidental meetings in the halls or on our campus grounds.  

Access to language and communication is a fundamental human right, one that all too often is denied to deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind people. Only one to two percent of deaf children worldwide have access to education in sign language. For centuries, sign and spoken language have been set up as rivals inchild development, language planning and deaf education, presenting parents with a stark binary option, pick either spoken language or sign language, denying too many children the full range of options to support their language, brain growth andlifelong well-being. Consequently, policies and practices have missed the opportunity to support families and children,embracing the full possibilities that can be achieved if every child — not only deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind children — receives exposure to sign and spoken languages. Sign language is not only beneficial for those born deaf. Most adults will suffer from late hearing loss after the age of 55. Knowledge of sign language, far more than most people realize, is a universal imperative. 

At Gallaudet in 1960, a team of researchers proved that ASL was a language in its own right.  Today, on our campus and in the Gallaudet neighborhood, you see the power and vibrancy of sign language everyday with both hearing and deaf people. Many of the nearby businesses have signing employees, as well as visuocentric menus and point-of-sale terminals. On H Street there is a signing Starbucks, a deaf-friendly Chase branch, and Mozzeria, a deaf-founded and deaf-staffed Neapolitan pizza restaurant. Just a few blocks away is the Apple Store at Carnegie Library with nearly two dozen deaf employees. We are seeing the power of how American Sign Language strengthens our community and brings us together in new and inclusive ways. Late deafened people and their families can now find settings where they can naturally immerse themselves in sign language to build a more inclusive family experience for everyone.

Our sign language economy in the United States is big business. It brings economic value to our cities and our neighborhoods. Our local and state bilingual education programs create thousands of jobs for deaf and hearing people who are bilingual. Colleges and universities across the nation generate more than$43 million in revenue from teaching ASL, with Gallaudet training most teachers for these programs through our Master of Arts in Sign Language Education program. Gallaudet is proud of the fact that our university and our alumni have played a major role in building a sign language economy in the U.S. now worth an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion. 

There are many misconceptions surrounding sign languages. Just like there is no universal spoken language, sign language is not universal. There are hundreds of sign languages and dialects used throughout the world, including ASL, Black ASL, and protactile sign languages used by deafblind people

The human experience and research affirm that the brain does not prioritize spoken language over sign language. Science has shown that the brain recognizes sign languages and spoken languages equally. Science also has shown the benefits or “gain” of learning visual language on brain development, including enhanced reading skills and comprehension, improved complex brain functioning especially with math and music, even protection against diseases like Alzheimer’s. Importantly, research on how human brains produce language on the eyes and hands as effectively as through the ears and mouth is changing our understanding of the impact of visual learning and visual language on the development of the brain and children.

Sign languages are currently enjoying a moment in the spotlight, from the myriad of deaf actors using sign language in recent movies such as CODA and television shows such as New Amsterdam and This Close, to the use of certified deaf interpreters at recent COVID government briefings. All of this is welcomed, but these must not just be fleeting moments that fade once the cool factor wears off, an all too familiar experience for the deaf community. Sign language should be respected, embraced, valued the same as any other language each and every day. 

More than ever, as Gallaudet has returned to campus and the classroom, I contemplate the power and vibrancy of sign language and its integral role not only in our students’ lifelong success but also in the creation of a more inclusive and connected world. As it has for 157 years, our university remains steadfast in its mission to expand bilingual learning opportunities across our students’ lifespan. By doing so, Gallaudet will continue to help the broader world more fully recognize, respect and embrace the value of deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind people and their contributions to our world.

But Gallaudet and the broader deaf community cannot do this alone. Our world needs a sign language mind shift, a profound societal awakening that access to any language, signed or spoken, is ultimately about the fundamental right to human connection – connection that we all rightly expect, need and enjoy – connection that is so central to our life and liberty. 

Fittingly, the theme of this year’s International Day of Sign Languages was “We Sign for Human Rights.” I invite all of you to be our partners as we grow the signing ecosystem and cultivate opportunities in the local, national, and global economies. What can you do? Befriend your deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind neighbors and colleagues, take ASL classes, support deaf organizations and businesses, hire deaf talent, and immerse yourself in the vibrant signing culture close to where you live and work. We all will be enlightened through our shared experiences and the far more connected and inclusive world that we create together.

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