Meriah Nichols: I don’t agree that sign language will die out because of technology

Posted on April 10, 2015

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Meriah Nichols

Andrew Solomon wrote a book called “Far From the Tree” that was all the rage a couple of years ago. In it, he explores identity through analyzing multiple disabilities, along with homosexuality, children of rape, prodigies and transgendered people.

It has taken me literally all this time to work my way through the deaf chapter. Whenever I’ve started to read that chapter, it’s as if the waterworks are turned on behind my eyes and Just. Don’t. Stop.

Without getting overly dramatic about it, I think my emotions regarding the chapter are more to do with triggers in the chapter on my own experiences growing up deaf in oral communities, schools and family, and less to do with Solomon’s writing.

But there was one thing that stood out for me enough to want to write this post.

The future of sign language

Solomon concluded his chapter by saying that since parents are choosing cochlear implants more and more, the number of the deaf is decreasing, and it seems likely that ASL is a dying language.

But he doesn’t seem to understand – as many parents of deaf children apparently also don’t understand – that being deaf isn’t something that you turn on or off with your technology.

My hearing aids help me to hear, just as cochlear implants help people who have them. But at the end of the day, we take these devices off and we are deaf.

So if parents or people choose to utilize technology like hearing aids or implants, I would love for them to think about what happens when the devices come off?

What happens when you take the hearing aids or implants off?

You don’t wear the external device that is attached to the cochlear implant 24/7, nor does one wear hearing aids 24/7. What happens then? If you don’t teach your kid sign language and give them a way to become fluent in it, you are making your child completely reliant on machines to hear and communicate, and without language when not wearing them.

Even if I could, I don’t want to wear my hearing aids all the time. My dear friend Katherine originally had two cochlear implants. One implant had to be removed due to infections and she is having issues with her remaining CI. She was raised completely oral – so if she had not made the independent decision to learn ASL as an adult, where would she be now?

I am not sure I can emphasize how horrible it is to be without a means to communicate.

Want to tell your lover you want some coffee? No hearing aids or implant in; oh, write it on paper or struggle to lipread or have her shout at you. The effort of it is more than exhausting; it is spiritually numbing and disempowering.

I think it is absolutely critical that parents be educated in the importance of ASL and to make sure their deaf kids can become fluent in it so that they won’t be lost without their devices. I think parents need to realize that their child can be fluent in ASL and still wear their device – and that helping their child to learn and utilize sign language will actually empower their child, give them greater options and opportunities, and leave them feeling safer for when they are not wearing their device.

I don’t agree with Solomon’s take on the ‘one or the other’ – I don’t think that ASL is or needs to be a dying language because of the emerging popularity of cochlear implants or more sophisticated technology in hearing aids.

Meriah Nichols writes about travel, disability and parenting. Deaf, she is also the mother of Moxie, who has Down syndrome. Meriah’s writing has appeared in Huffington Post, News.com The Village Voice and Scary Mommy, among others. She currently farms half the year on the Lost Coast of California and travels the Pan American Highway during the other half, “roadschooling” the kids.

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