Sunday, October 30, 2005

Can You Read the Sign?

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Credit for the idea for this post belongs to a nineteen-month-old child. My daughter called recently to tell me that my grandson has learned to say “please” and “thank you”. That is developmentally appropriate and was not really a surprise; it was when she told me he has also learned the signs for the words that I really took notice. Thankfully, my grandson is not disabled; he spends time with a three year old disabled child who is being taught Sign to help him communicate, and is picking it up just by being present and interacting with the three year old.

The ability to communicate verbally is one of the characteristics that makes us human. Babies learn to communicate by a process of listening and imitating what they hear. This process takes several years to fully master, but it is possible for even very young children to begin to communicate their wants and needs much earlier via the use of signs. Even children born deaf or mute can learn to sign.

Perhaps the best-known example of the importance of communication to functioning is Helen Keller. In “The Miracle Worker”, Anne Sullivan holds Helen’s hand under a stream from a water pump, at the same time that she uses fingerspelling to spell the word “water.” This is what finally helps Helen understand that objects and people have names…and it opens up the world to her. For the rest of her life, she spoke and wrote about the power of communication and what it meant to her. She was freed from a prison of silence and darkness, and her intellect began to grow. Had it not been for Anne Sullivan’s use of sign, Helen Keller likely would have remained out-of-control and largely confined to her home. Sign opened doors for her, and made it possible for her to go to college, and later to meet and interact with the public and with world leaders for the rest of her life.

The loss or absence of the ability to communicate verbally due to congenital or later onset disability due to trauma from head injury, stroke or even cancer can create many difficult challenges for both the affected person and his or her family, friends, and even helping professionals whose job it is to help restore functioning. The frustration of needing to communicate basic wants, needs and thoughts to others can contribute to depression, anxiety, and anger, all of which can and do contribute to delays in recovery or may even prevent recovery at all.

American Sign Language (ASL) is one of many “languages” that have been used by and for persons with a communication disability. Rather than using a sign for each word in a sentence, ASL seeks to convey concepts. Signed English, on the other hand, does use a sign for each word in a sentence, and is most often used in a classroom setting. The various languages have developed in and around communities of deaf and otherwise speech-disabled populations, and take their names from those communities; an example is Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. Martha’s Vineyard had a population of persons with hereditary deafness. These languages have developed not through the work of a single individual, but with many contributors. They have structure, and even grammar. They are visual in nature, but can also be used with the blind, as demonstrated in the example of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan (who studied under Alexander Graham Bell).

Sign language interpreters are used in almost any large meeting or gathering, and various professionals (doctors, nurses, social workers and others) either learn sign themselves or have the services of interpreters available via contract to provide care or intervention to clients. Sign, however, is not as globally available as it should be to serve people who need assistance to communicate. Many such persons learn some form of sign within their own families, and often must rely on family members who are unimpaired to assist them to communicate in public. This is a barrier to independence that can, and should be removed by offering sign as readily available as Braille is in most areas for the blind. When was the last time you saw a deaf person communicate with a computer technician in a store? Yet, people with communication deficits can and do spend money as consumers, and should not be excluded from full participation in the process of learning and using technology.

One encouraging development is that more colleges and universities are offering classes in Sign, with credit for the courses provided as fulfilling foreign language requirements. This is a step in the right direction, but more is needed. It may be that interpreters are so costly because they are in short supply and in high demand in some communities. More people need access to Sign classes, and not just at the college level. Sign could be as easily taught in elementary school or even beginning in kindergarten.

There are many online resources available for learning ASL, including online dictionaries, tutorials, and even at least one font of the manual alphabet. Sign is available, in one form or another, worldwide. If you are not in the US, just use a search engine to locate local resources in your community. It is high time Sign resources are readily available to everyone, not just a select few professionals and the clients they serve. I plan to learn Sign myself, and to do everything I can to nurture my grandson’s use of Sign and to help increase his fluency as he matures, so that it doesn’t become “something he used to be able to do but forgot.” By learning and practicing Sign, he will be comfortable communicating with even those who cannot hear or speak, and both he and the persons with whom he interacts will be enriched.