'Don't ban sign language' says Deaf community at Vancouver Congress

Thunderous applause and tears greeted presenters at the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED 2010), which was held in Vancouver this week, when they called for countries around the world to embrace sign-language-based educational programs for deaf students.

Congress participants, both deaf and hearing, celebrated the July 19th statement formally rejecting the resolutions made at the ICED 1880 Congress in Milan, which "removed the use of sign languages from educational programs for deaf around the world".

After over a century of fighting to have sign languages acknowledged and supported by educational organizations, the Deaf community sees the ICED 2010 statement as a groundbreaking step. While previous attempts to reject the Milan 1880 resolutions failed, many say the years of restricting deaf children's access to sign language robbed them of the ability to reach their full potential.

This week's history-making statement, called "A New Era: Deaf Participation and Collaboration", rejected the idea that sign languages should be banned from educational programs for deaf students. It also expressed regret at the detrimental effects of the Milan 1880 resolution, and asked educators all over the world to "ensure that educational programs accept and respect all languages and all forms of communication".

Deaf advocate Amy Cohen Efron says on her blog, "I applaud the conference organizers and community advocates working together to make this historical moment to 'spit at the demon of Milan 1880.'"

The Deaf-with-a-capital-D community has long fought to be recognized as a group based around a shared language and culture, rather than a disability.

But there are other reasons, besides socio-cultural ones, for giving deaf children access to sign language. The most compelling reasons relate to research about the brain and language.

When a child learns his native language, whether it is English or French or Swahili, the child is acquiring a universal set of concepts and structures that etch themselves in the brain, forming cognitive pathways. For example, we all have an idea of what a plural is, regardless of whether the specific language we speak marks it with an "s" (as in English) or a "men" (as in Mandarin) or something else. So if the child starts to learn a second language later in life, all he has to do is attach the new language's words onto the existing language framework in his brain.

A problem can arise when a child who is congenitally deaf tries to function in an oral language environment. Because he is deaf, he may not fully grasp all the nuances of spoken English and may therefore have difficulty forming the cognitive concepts and structures that form the basis of language. Signed languages, on the other hand, make ideal native languages for a deaf child because they are languages that are fully accessible through the unimpaired modality--vision.

Despite these clear reasons, the Deaf community feels it has a long way to go in order to convince people that every child should be given a chance to learn sign language. The ICED 2010 "Accord for the Future" includes a list of actions, including a call "to recognize and allow all Deaf citizens to be proud, confident, productive, creative and enabling citizens in their respective countries".

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