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Parents of deaf kids push for more American Sign Language education

Posted at 5:50 PM, May 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-18 18:31:07-04

(WXYZ) — More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. And it may come as a shock to you to learn that the vast majority of those parents will never learn sign language.

That’s because, currently, the focus is instead on technology, maximizing the ability to hear the English language through the use of hearing devices. Very little emphasis is put on the benefits of American Sign Language.

The problem is, for many, the mono-lingual model isn’t enough with a growing number of deaf and hard of hearing children arriving to kindergarten lagging behind their peers.

“It was hard to wrap my head around,” says Jen DeMeritt, who will never forget that day in 2009 when she learned her baby boy, Will, was deaf.

“There’s so much feeling there of okay, well now what – what do I do to help my baby?” she says.

Navigating the road to early intervention felt confusing.

“They wanted to spend a lot of time telling us what his limitations would be,” she says.

But something she felt was being left out.

“There was never any discussion about communication and access and language and what are our options,” she says.

A plethora of research shows deaf and hard-of-hearing children who acquire sign language at a young age perform better academically and socially but many parents across metro Detroit say the resources are severely lagging.

“The home school district didn’t have any services available, they had nothing,” DeMeritt says.

The family did eventually find a suitable program, but the challenge to do so many say underscores existing prejudice against ASL and amounts to language deprivation.

“The limitations right now for deaf people and their learning need to be expanded,” Will says.

While I don’t know how to sign, I did muster out my name while chatting with Freida Morrison through the help of an interpreter.

Morrison is a former ASL specialist and educator.

"What is available, it focuses on what can their ears do and what can their mouths do - can they hear and can they speak and it’s causing some issues with their success,” she says.

Today, over 90% of deaf babies are born to hearing parents. But 3 out of 4 of those parents shockingly don’t use sign language at home. Problem is many of their children are showing up to kindergarten academically behind.

“For deaf education, there are so many children are so delayed and they are still passed to the next grade level until graduation, and they get out to the world, they don’t have literacy skills,” Morrison says.

Deaf mom, Rosemary Langevin, whose daughters began learning sign at birth says the disparities are so stark, her deaf daughters are often unable to communicate with some of their deaf peers.

“It was just heartbreaking to see these other children with the deprivation from such an early age,” she says.

These women are now behind the fight for Lead-K, a legislative campaign calling for the state to put ASL learning on equal footing with English, and ensure deaf kids are at age-expected levels by kindergarten.

A bill is currently working its way through the state legislature – but three previous attempts have failed

“I don't understand why people don’t want our children with hearing loss to not be provided with language…we want them to have language from age zero, I can’t imagine opposing that,” says Langevin.

Opponents - including some audiologists and cochlear implant organizations - argue deaf kids should rely on the technology available and have expressed concerns that bilingual training could impede a child’s ability to acquire spoken English.

But Will, now thirteen and thriving, credits his success to his ability to speak through sign.

“I have struggled through, my parents have been there for my struggle, culture, and language, but I'm thankful to my parents for providing that to me,” he says.

And he’s hopeful that others won’t have to work so hard.

“It’s time, that Lead-K show people that deaf have and we need to have equal rights, just like people who can hear,” he says.

To date, the Michigan Lead-K bill has passed in the house and is being considered in the senate.

You can read the bill here: http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(ebbwj2p0flyhnwiugsqfbhlv))/mileg.aspx?page=GetObject&objectname=2022-HB-5777