ASL: Facing the Challenges of the Deaf Community

Through the years, Deaf people have faced numerous challenges. For example, not all states in the United States recognize American Sign Language (ASL) as a foreign language. Other past challenges included little access to education and almost no opportunity for gainful employment. Although things have improved over time, Deaf people still face obstacles. This article discusses challenges past and present and looks at how the Deaf community has made strides to overcome them.

Putting the past in the past

Sign language, like the Deaf people who use it, has had to fight for survival. Around the world, Sign language — as well as those who communicate this way — has been viewed as lesser than that of the hearing world. Many hearing people have dedicated themselves to changing the Deaf and their language.

For centuries, Deaf people had to undergo the treatment of being viewed as incomplete because of their absence of hearing. Some religious groups wanted to save Deaf people, while other groups wanted to teach them. Because of a lack of speech, Deaf people were viewed as deaf and dumb. This label, which Aristotle invented, has been attached to the Deaf people since ancient Greece.

Deaf people have been associated with being demon-possessed because some of them can't speak. Due to numerous biblical verses labeling them as dumb and mute, the Middle Ages — a dogmatic religious time — wasn't kind to Deaf people. Deaf individuals were hidden by family members, locked in asylums, or forced to try speaking, even though they couldn't hear themselves.

During World War II, Adolf Hitler's henchmen castrated Deaf men after they were locked up in concentration camps as part of various medical experiments.

Contemporary religious leaders have attempted to heal Deaf people of their "sickness" and accused them of lacking faith when miraculous hearing didn't happen.

Some people mock Signing in front of Deaf people or tell them how sorry they are that they can't hear the birds singing or the phone ringing. Others are so rude as to talk about Deaf people right in front of them as though they aren't even there.

Many Deaf people and Deaf advocates have risen to challenge this oppression, and they seem to have been successful because Deaf people are still signing to one another every day.

You've come a long way, baby

Although Deaf people aren't viewed as being possessed by the devil anymore, they still continue to face the challenges presented to them by a hearing world. Deaf people have fought for equal opportunities in education and employment and for cultural recognition, just to name a few. Take a look at how the Deaf community has overcome modern obstacles.

The laws of the land

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been a milestone, not only for Deaf people but also for all Americans. Here is some basic information about the ADA. This is not intended to be legal advice but general information. To learn more about the ADA, visit the ADA Home Page.

  • Title I: Employment. If 15 employees are deaf or disabled, the workplace must be modified to be accessible. For example, TTYs, ramps, and/or railings could be installed.
  • Title II: Public Services. Programs, activities, and transportation can't discriminate against disabled people. Buses, taxis, and other public means of transportation need to accommodate the disabled population. Programs such as job training, educational classes, and other assistance to gainful employment must also be provided.
  • Title III: Public Accommodations. All new construction of establishments such as hotels, grocery stores, retail stores, and restaurants are mandated to add physical assistance, such as ramps and railings.
  • Title IV: Telecommunications. Telecommunication agencies that provide phone services must provide a relay service for TTY users.
  • Title V: Miscellaneous. Prohibits any threats to disabled people or to persons assisting the disabled.

Getting classified as an "official" language

Although the Deaf population in America has had much progress through laws promoting civil equality and educational advancement of Deaf people, the road to total equality is still a long one. Not all states in America recognize ASL as an actual language.

The dispute over whether ASL is an actual language has been ongoing. Those who think that it should be considered a language often cite the following reasons:

  • It syntactically contains properties like other languages, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
  • It maintains grammar rules that must be followed.

Presently, approximately 20 states support this argument and recognize ASL as a foreign language. In addition, numerous colleges and universities offer credits for ASL as a foreign language.

On the other hand, many people don't buy the argument that ASL is a real language. Their argument goes like this:

  • All countries, including the United States, use their own indigenous sign language. Therefore, if you were from Spain and traveled to Peru, your Spanish Sign Language wouldn't be compatible with Peruvian Sign Language, even though the hearing communities from both countries could speak Spanish and understand each other.
  • At best, some countries, such as the United States, have had a profound impact educationally on other countries. Many foreign Deaf people come to the United States for schooling, and they take home many ASL signs.

Standardizing a Sign language internationally has not happened with any one national Sign language. However, there is a Sign language system called International Sign Language (ISL); it was previously called Gesturo. It's used at international Deaf events and conferences. It uses various signs from several national sign languages and was first used in the 1970s at the World Federation of the Deaf in Finland. To get more information about ISL, visit Gallaudet University.

Living and working as part of the silent minority

In a real sense, Deaf people living in America are a silent minority. The majority is made up of those who can hear. For Deaf people, living in a world where one's language is known by few and understood by even fewer influences how Deaf people view themselves. (To categorize how Deaf people view themselves is too big a label to put on people who are individuals with various educational, economic, social, and deafness levels. Some people are more adaptable than others — in both the hearing and Deaf worlds.)

It also influences their feelings about how to exist as a people. This experience is often compared to living in a foreign country. Think about it: How would you feel if you were living in a foreign land where the language, customs, and culture weren't native to you? You'd probably go through each day with reluctance and uncertainty. You'd want to say what's appropriate, not something that would be viewed as ignorant. You'd feel frustrated when you wanted to state your opinion but couldn't make yourself understood. You'd feel isolated when everyone was laughing at a joke, and you didn't understand the punch line. Deaf people often feel this way when they're surrounded by hearing people.

When speakers of a minority group come together, apart from the majority, they feel a certain sense of freedom to be able to speak — or sign — as fast as they want, and to converse, using idioms in their native language.

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