Sign Language vs. Hearing Aids: The Debate

What began as a Washington Post profile of Dancing With The Stars competitor Nyle DiMarco, quickly sparked a debate over the use of American Sign Language versus the use of hearing aids at an early age. DiMarco, who is deaf and is an advocate for ASL, was met with criticism from Meredith Sugar, president of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Sugar claims that ASL is becoming obsolete with the rapid improvements in hearing-aid technology. Others counter that using just a hearing aid will limit the development of communication skills in young children. This argument has become just another chapter in battle between hearing aids and sign language.

A Sign of the Times

Sugar argues that with the improvements in hearing aid technology, children as young as two years old will be able to experience sound for the first time. With sleeker, less visible designs, children are apt to be less self-conscious of their disability. This sense of “belonging” goes a long way at such an early age. However, price does play an important role in the decision. With trips to ear specialists, speech specialists, and surgeons, the medical bills can quickly rise. Not only that, but also many parents believe implementing a hearing aid so soon gives their child a crutch to become dependent on. Many believe hearing aids actually slow down the speech development in children, because if they don’t understand how to pronounce the word, they have no other way to express it.

The Language Learners

Many parents will continue to choose the traditional route, which is learning American Sign Language. Taught just like a foreign language, at an early age children are given the building blocks to create a solid foundation to learn upon. Using a combination of facial expression recognition, lip-reading, and hand movement allows the brain to process linguistics through the eyes to help better understand the information they’re receiving. However, many speech specialists are opting to teach, “Signed English,” a hybrid of ASL that combines the same grammatical principles with addition of signs that mimic spoken language. This has created a confusing blend of two different types of signs, with distraught children and frustrated parents left in the middle. It’s also been confusing for many parents because there’s no black and white description of “deaf” and “hearing.” The spectrum of hearing impairment also plays a key role in deciding what type of action to take for your child’s future.

Look and Listen to Your Child

Every case is going to be different, so it’s important to listen to not only the professionals, but your child as well. You might observe that they might still have trouble expressing themselves despite the addition of a hearing aid. Others might notice that although they use ASL extremely well, their vocal expression is lacking. Perhaps a combination of both sign and hearing aids will be the right option. It’s important to get as many opinions as possible but it’s ultimately a decision to be made between you and your child. This precarious position you’re faced with can be managed with listening and observation.


Author: Troy Diffenderfer

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