Kansas schools should increase instruction in American Sign Language

Letters A through M in American Sign Language alphabet, in an illustration provided by Gallaudet University. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Katie Dakan graduates in May from Wichita State University with a bachelor’s degree in communication.

There are 70 million Deaf sign language users worldwide, approximately 25,000 of whom are in Kansas, yet they live in a world that is largely inaccessible to them.

The pandemic has given people access to a wide variety of virtual events, from COVID-19 briefings to concerts, anywhere in the world. But without sign language interpreters or closed captions, these advances are useless for the Deaf community. This can mean missing out on opportunities to be an informed citizen. As Shanna Groves recently argued, without live captions or a transcript, the Kansas Legislature’s audio and video livestreams violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Inaccesibility is a result of the barriers created between the Deaf and hearing communities. That’s because in the hearing world, learning sign language isn’t a priority. The Deaf community deserves to be included in a society where we can all communicate with each other.

Kansas schools should work toward bridging the language gap by increasing access to instruction in American Sign Language.

While some K-12 students in Kansas can choose to take ASL classes as electives or extracurricular activities, others don’t have access to ASL programs until college. While some may think this is enough, in order to work toward an inclusive society, a basic understanding of ASL for students at an early age is crucial. This can happen through contacting school districts and stressing the many benefits of inclusive classrooms for all students.

The benefits have the potential to translate to all aspects of society. For example, the medical model views disability as an impairment or a deficit that needs to be “fixed” in order to be included in society. Often the hearing world insists that Deaf people get cochlear implants or learn to speak in order to have access to communication. This is how society thinks today, emphasizing that to be accepted, the individual must change, rather than building a world that accommodates their needs.

Deaf and disabled individuals have a culture and a community. They tend to view being Deaf as a positive attribute and a part of their identity. These accessibility issues happen because society doesn’t see it that way. Deaf culture is a search for the Deaf self, through analyzing what it means to be a complete Deaf person, not a person who is incomplete because of the lack of hearing. A focus on inclusion in education creates an environment where Deaf students can fully embrace their identity, and not feel ashamed for being different. What we see today is a lack of awareness, education and understanding of the Deaf community. It hasn’t always been this way, though.

Letters N through Z in American Sign Language alphabet, in an illustration provided by Gallaudet University. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1700s, the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts had a high rate of Deafness among their population, so everyone learned a signed language and could communicate with each other. Here, Deafness was not seen as a deficit because everyone had equal access to language in this community. This shows what society would look like if we valued equal access as much as this community did.

This illustrates the social model of disability. It frames the dis- in disability as being a result of one’s inaccessible environment. A person with hearing loss is not disabled by hearing loss itself, but by the environment not providing the appropriate resources for that person. This means we, as hearing individuals, perpetuate an inaccessible environment by not learning sign language or providing captions.

It is clear that a lack of language access creates problems on multiple levels. Without access to language, people lose access to everything from education, healthcare, housing or any other aspect of life, because communication is essential to functioning in our society. Not only that, but language is essential to building relationships. Just think how many connections we miss out on because we lack the education. Education leads to acceptance, which when taught early leads to a society more accepting of disability.

When hearing or nondisabled children grow up in inclusive spaces, they have the foundations to create inclusive spaces when those needs arise. This means being aware and equipped to provide accommodations such as sign language interpreting and closed captioning, inequities which the pandemic has exposed in the transition to virtual meetings, events and education. Too often events rely on auto-generated captions which can be inaccurate, leaving the content inaccessible. Ideally, these situations would offer ASL interpreting in addition to transcribed captions, giving everyone access to their preferred language.

Making events accessible should be the standard, not an afterthought. If only everyone had the chance to learn sign language in school.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.