Is Technology Killing Sign Language?

Illustration for article titled Is Technology Killing Sign Language?

A byproduct of innovation and technology is that it makes once useful things obsolete. Laserdiscs, tape decks, AOL, Dreamcast and more have all been killed off with better technology. Could that happen to sign language? Some people think so.

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The NY Times has an interesting report on technology and sign language and it's actually becoming a contentious debate (as things tend to be when there are parents involved). On one side there's people who follow A.S.L. (American Sign Language), which include separate schools for deaf, and then there are those who believe in technology, amplifying sound and speech and assimilating the deaf to "mainstream" schools.

Previously, parents would choose which method to raise their kids in but with shrinking state budgets, schools for the deaf might disappear and force people to side with technology. Parents are worried that lawmakers would prefer technology such as cochlear implants for the deaf or hard of hearing as they don't have to allocate separate budgets for special schools. However, according to Hear Indiana, most families are choosing the technology approach already. In a release, they said:

"Today less than 20 percent of all families choose traditional American Sign Language, the remaining 80 percent want their children to enjoy the full range of sounds and to be able to listen and speak."

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I wouldn't be surprised to see that number get even higher as the technology gets better. [NY Times]

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DISCUSSION

Maybe I don't qualify for an opinion, since I can hear, but I have had some contact with the deaf community.

First of all, I think it's silly to force a person to remain deaf if they can be helped to hear by technology. If hearing aids or cochlear implants will fix your ears, why would you NOT want them?

However, for those people who are stuck with it, then denying them a language (such as ASL) is cruel and inhuman. You wouldn't raise a hearing child without teaching him (or her) to speak, and it would be just as wrong to raise a deaf child without giving him the ability to communicate.

Cell phone carriers also need to get in to the act. They should sell data-only plans for smartphones that allow deaf people to SMS and IM without requiring them to pay for voice services they'll never use. In fact, smartphones could completely replace the need for TDD systems, especially if the telephone relay operators (who currently talk to deaf people via TDD and relay the conversation to a hearing person via a voice call) get in to the act.

Technology and speech therapy can help the deaf and the hearing communicate, but it's not a substitute for having a natural language that a deaf person can use just as easily as I use English.