I’ve been thinking a lot about belonging and connection lately – thanks to Simon Sinek and his book Leaders Eat Last.
And then I came across an article questioning if children should learn sign language in school. Which hit me for two reasons, one of which is that my latest preoccupation has been whether to put our daughter in French Immersion next year.
The article made me think about language and accessibility in a different way.
When our daughter was young we took baby sign language classes because we heard it was helpful for reducing frustration for pre-verbal infants. It helped, and it was fun, but ultimately we dropped it when she learned to vocalize what she wanted.
Did you know that 90% of Deaf children have parents who are not?
Learning Sign Language in School
Imagine…if we learned sign language in school we would be on the ball as parents of a deaf child instead of scrambling to learn.
In the video, kids who are Deaf tell about how isolated and sad they feel not being able to communicate with their peers who can hear, and what a difference it makes to them when they can really connect because these same peers have learned to sign.
It’s that simple.
We all want to belong. Simon Sinek talks about this in Leaders Eat Last – reminding us that we are social animals and how necessary community and belonging are.
While we scramble to give our kids a “leg up” by enrolling them in French Immersion in kindergarten or International Language classes after school, there is language, another opportunity for making a human connection that isn’t on my radar – Sign Language.
Sign Language is a Language
Sign Language is a language. Not simply a translation of the spoken word – something I didn’t know until recently (an example of bias and being oblivious to things that are not part of our identities and experiences). You can read more about it in an earlier blog post. Sign Language allows Deaf people to communicate and – by extension, allows people who are not Deaf to communicate with people that we may otherwise miss, disregard, not see, or not “hear” from. (Argh!!! There are so many expressions that rely on auditory functioning!)
In writing this blog, I looked up terminology and discovered the difference between the terms Deaf, the deafened and the hard of hearing – all distinct communities and cultures.
Being Able to Communicate
Several months ago a friend of mine had an experience in a grocery store that was moving. Because he can sign, he was able to ask the closest store clerk, who happened to be Deaf, for help – and receive it. He was told by this clerk what a difference it made to him that my friend could sign. And when my friend signed back that his knowledge of Sign Language was minimal, he was told that even that made a difference and that in contrast, this person’s co-workers didn’t sign, and how frustrating it was for the clerk.
He felt seen. And was able to communicate. And contribute.
In addition to belonging, human beings like to connect. Sign language gives us another opportunity to do so – and with people we may not otherwise have the opportunity to connect with.
The article I read and which is linked to this blog is from the UK. At the end you’ll see that the government responded to the petition by saying teachers are free to teach British Sign Language (BSL) if they wish. Think of the message that this sends to the thousands of children (and families) who rely on Sign Language to communicate and form connections and bonds. By contrast, consider the message that “we will teach this as part of our mandatory curriculum” sends.
We teach students, generations and populations who and what has value by what we teach in school, who we learn about, and who is left out entirely.
In Toronto, we have International Language Classes (optional after school). ASL is on that list! But imagine if Sign Language was part of the daily mandatory curriculum (like French is, albeit starting in Grade 4) and we had a population that was fluent? What message would that send? Who would be included? What could that create?
PS – There are many “learn ASL” videos on YouTube. If you prefer to learn “in person” and if you’re in Canada, the Canadian Hearing Society offers classes.