We Aren’t Outliers

“You had strong family support.”

“You went to a good school.”

“You got lots of one-on-one time, didn’t you?”

“You were exposed to other cuers.”

Sometimes, when I tell others about what Cued Speech had done for me growing up, someone will mention the above, as if those factors somehow negate or diminish Cued Speech’s efficacy. It’s like they’re implying that Cued Speech itself didn’t work, that the other factors had to compensate, or that I was the exception that proved the rule.

It’s true that family and educational support are immensely important, and often if not usually a deciding factor in a child’s success. Home and school are where the child spends most of his time. However, communication access and literacy depend highly on what the people in those environments are equipped to provide.

In a residential school, or a mainstreamed program with a strong Deaf presence, everyone is either d/hh, more visual-oriented, or have (ideally!) received training and support to meet language requirements. Staff are able to act as appropriate language models, so that ensures communication access and, to some degree, academic success.

Outside of residential schools, though, getting that access to appropriate language models can be much more challenging– not to mention the complexities of using a manual language to impart literacy in a completely separate aural language. That’s if you have access to ASL; more often, what I’ve seen is a mixture of auditory-verbal therapy and manually-coded sign systems, and the results can vary just as much from very, very good to very, very bad. In fact, many cueing parents took up Cued Speech precisely because their local programs or residential schools were not a viable option for one reason or another.

In evaluating different approaches in d/hh education, we need to look at that approach’s overall results, not just specific examples. We can’t cherry-pick outliers to prove our point. That’s probably why those statements at the beginning somewhat annoy me, because in my experience, success at attaining language and literacy through Cued Speech is the norm, not the exception.

In my experience, signing d/hh people who can write or read well tend to be in the minority. On the flip side, cueing d/hh people who have those odd grammatical or spelling flukes– not typos, but more like what you might see from ESL speakers– are the exception; the rest read, write, and talk like native hearing speakers (with varying degrees of a “deaf” voice). I’ve had more than one person tell me that they wouldn’t know I was deaf just by reading my posts.

The studies on Cued Speech that I’ve read bear this out– in fact, I haven’t yet found any studies with negative results on Cued Speech’s use. (I do recall one with “meh” results in a group of hard-of-hearing students, but that’s about it.)

I suspect that you won’t see such consistent results among deaf signers mainly due to these reasons:

  1. The learning curve involved in picking up any manually-coded or signed system, which demands greater commitment and effort from parents and teachers over the long term, so you’re much more likely to see a wider variation in usage and proficiency.
  2. The linguistic and conceptual gap between sign language and spoken language (or even just two different languages). You can patch that gap somewhat, but it’ll never replace incidental learning through full linguistic immersion (and not necessarily just reading and writing).

This isn’t to make Cued Speech out to be a magic bullet that bestows language and literacy the instant someone starts using it for their kid. What it does do is enable one to visually “recode” a language she already knows, without the delay of learning and translating through a second language. In this way, the d/hh kid is put on the same playing field as a hearing child for literacy and language acquisition, so d/hh cuers are much more likely to pick up spoken/written language at the same pace as their hearing counterparts.

Deaf in the Workforce: Discrimination or Disqualification?

Why do deaf people struggle so much with employment? I’ve known so many hard-working, competent people who finally had to swallow their pride and go on SSDI after searching for several years.

The common reason I’ve been given is discrimination: employers don’t want to hire deaf people, because deaf. And to some degree, I do think this is true. I understand why employers would balk when you’re talking about jobs in which you have a lot of face-to-face communication, or safety concerns that rely very much on auditory input. Others, I think, are probably just not very well-informed about what a deaf employee entails; maybe they mistakenly believe that they have to provide an interpreter 40/5, or purchase costly equipment in order to comply with the ADA.

On the other hand… well, there are the resumes I’ve edited for deaf friends. That is usually the first thing the employer sees. If the deaf person’s writing skills weren’t so great and they didn’t get it edited first, I guarantee you it wasn’t “Graduated from _______ School for the Deaf” that got them turned down. Even if the resume passes, any email or text conversation will generally reveal that literacy level right away.

A friend who works in deaf education relayed her experiences with walking her deaf students through written tests. “I have to interpret everything,” she told me, “line by line.” She talked about having to explain what a puzzle was to a 17-year-old student. He was smart, and undoubtedly he’d seen and played with puzzles before, but he didn’t know the English name for it. So when he read that question on a test, “are you good at solving puzzles?”, he had to ask what a puzzle was.

I write and edit for a living. Straight up, I would not hire a majority of deaf and hard of hearing people I’ve met for any job that relied heavily on precise written communication. This has nothing to do with their hearing level and everything to do with their English skills. We must be able to communicate, somehow– if not verbally, then written. Many employers and employees cannot rely on signed-language or cued-language accommodations to be available 24/7.

In a lot of cases, it’s even worse than that. In talking with DVR counselors, I was amazed to find that many of their d/hh clients didn’t even know how to fill out a form for job applications. This could’ve been due to any reason– substandard education, mental impairment, pure laziness– but regardless of the reason, if these people didn’t even have the ability to fill out a form, is it any wonder they struggled so much to find employment?

And when these people try to enter the workforce– as is their right, as they should– how much of that literacy stigma spreads to the deaf and hard of hearing population in general? How much of it is discrimination? How much of it is due to poor reading and writing skills that impact job performance?

I don’t have any good answers here. I just know literacy’s still a huge problem in the d/hh community– I’d say it’s the biggest problem– and it bleeds out into everything. Maybe nowhere more so than your career.

Talk to the Experts!

If there’s just one thing I could tell anybody trying to learn more about the myriad of issues involved in deafness, it’d be this:

If you want to learn more about Cued Speech, ask someone who uses Cued Speech. If you want to learn more about American Sign Language, ask someone who uses American Sign Language. Same for cochlear implants, hearing aids, visual phonics, whatever. And take their word for it. Don’t patronize by implying that they’re an outlier. And don’t mix ’em up– that is, don’t expect an in-depth, balanced view on Alexander Graham Bell or cochlear implants from a 70-year-old Deaf signer. Likewise, a spoken-language proponent may not be terribly knowledgeable about nor sympathetic to Deaf Culture and ASL.

This isn’t to say that you can’t share opinions and resources. But like any other community, the d/hh population has its share of controversial topics, especially regarding children. Bias is always, always a factor. So is lack of knowledge and direct experience. It’s worse if the community itself tends to be rather homogeneous. As a result, misinformation can spread quickly, with no one to correct these. And I can assure you, I’ve seen my share of these with Cued Speech, especially in deaf education.

This isn’t necessarily deliberate, by the way. In my experience, most educational professionals are simply not aware of Cued Speech. If they are, they fall into four broad categories:

1) They don’t know of anyone who uses it and/or have not seen the research, so they may assume that it doesn’t work.

2) They think it’s another variant of Visual Phonics and/or may not see it as a viable communication option.

3) They don’t see the need for it, citing that they use Signed English or a Bi-Bi approach with ASL.

4) They are open to it, but don’t know of any local resources nor demand for it.

Likewise, most d/hh people don’t use or see Cued Speech in action, although most people I meet are very accepting of the fact that I use it, and many are curious about how it works. But for the most part, they don’t know anything beyond what I showed them. Often, a good portion of our initial conversation is debunking misconceptions about Cued Speech.

As for those who had experience with it, including me, most of the feedback has been very positive. I did meet a few who had tried Cued Speech and decided it didn’t work for them, either because of resources or because they just didn’t ‘click’ with it. And that’s fair; everyone is different. The key here is that they tried it out for themselves, and formulated their opinions based on what they had personally encountered. More than that, these people could share the nuances that factored into their situation: a strong family network, mental and physical health, finances, access to resources, etc.

This, by the way, applies to anything in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Take any second-hand experience with a grain of salt.

“Forcing” Cued Speech on Students?

Many of you in the cueing community know about the furor over the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville, IL. For those of you who don’t, here’s a rundown: in 2011, the Illinois School for the Deaf started a pilot program that utilized Cued English in a bilingual program. Over the next two or so years, it expanded the program to other classes.

At some point last year, the school sent out a letter to parents that offered a Cued Speech track for interested parties. In part, this is where the confusion and controversy has been coming from. Some Deaf people have taken up arms against the use of Cued Speech in ISD; others worry that it’s being used to replace ASL.

A common allegation is that Cued Speech is being “forced” on students– in some cases, against their parents’ wills. The thing is, if you know anything about IEPs (Individualized Education Program), you know how unlikely that is. Each student’s IEP is determined based on what the parents choose, ideally with the kid’s input as well. The school cannot legally deviate from that IEP.

In other words, if the student’s IEP specifies that he be taught using ASL, then ASL is what he will (or should) get. Same for Cued Speech, Signed English, Visual Phonics, whatever.  Schools are legally mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) to provide the best services that they can in order to provide an accessible education to their students.  This IEP is revisited every year for every student and they can change it however they want, whenever they want.  This is true of ISD as much as anybody else.

Of course, the law doesn’t always translate into reality, but with the increased publicity, ISD has a much greater incentive to be legally compliant. Trying to force students into Cued Speech (or any other method) doesn’t work out to their benefit in this case.

“Natural” Language for the Deaf?

Sometimes I see articles and social media posts that imply, or flat-out declare that American Sign Language is deaf children’s “natural” language. This isn’t the case for me, nor for the majority of cuers that I know.

Language isn’t innate, and it doesn’t develop in isolation. Your L1 language is whatever you were consistently exposed to during the critical period of language development. You can also grow up with more than one L1 language simultaneously– that’s not uncommon outside of the United States. In fact, multilingualism’s demonstrable benefits for cognitive function is a big reason why I strongly advocate for learning both Cued Speech and sign language.

That said, as much as I love ASL, it is not my natural language. English is. I grew up with Cued English, and although I used some Signed English, I did not start learning full-fledged ASL until I entered college. I’m not an outlier here; I know several d/hh people who prefer English over sign, or are more fluent in English than sign, or learned English well before they learned sign. In fact, I don’t see very many “pure” ASL users outside of the residential school communities (most likely due to mainstreaming). The majority of d/hh people I know tend to use a mixture of spoken/Signed English and ASL.

This isn’t meant to be a value judgement; it’s just how things turned out. We were exposed to English growing up, so that became our L1 language– not American Sign language.

The Bilingual-Bicultural Dilemma

I’ve studied at least five languages. I majored in English, and minored in American Sign Language and Mandarin, including a four-month study abroad in Beijing. In high school, I dabbled in a semester or two of Latin and Spanish. (I highly recommend Latin as a starter language, by the way; it’s an incredibly useful key for any Romance language.)

The one constant in all my language studies was that at some point, you must immerse. Bar none, that’s the best way to improve your proficiency. Even my ASL instructors stressed this, and mandated that we had to attend at least one Deaf event per semester.

Yet, the one glaring exception seems to be deaf children learning English. Most bilingual-bicultural (Bi-Bi) programs I’ve seen address this by establishing ASL as a base language, and teaching all or most classes– including reading and writing– in ASL with written support.

There is some truth to this. Even with hearing aids and cochlear implants, deaf children don’t have the same access to spoken language that hearing children do. The bulk of our language proficiency comes through incidental learning, and for most people, it’s via auditory means. For deaf children, though, their primary mode is usually visual.

Hence, establishing English proficiency for deaf children is a toss-up between two general routes: either some variant of Signed English, which is much more faithful to English structuring, but tends to be functionally less complete as a language support; or American Sign Language, which is a complete language in and of itself, and as a result does not follow English structure.

The paramount objective is to establish a complete first language, ideally from fluent speakers. It’s much easier to pick up on other languages when you have a solid foundation in a base language. However, multilingual speakers will also tell you that the best way to increase your proficiency is full immersion– not just reading and writing, but also daily conversation with other native speakers. You can go only so far in studying a second language through your first language before you hit a roadblock. While proficiency is still very much doable– I’ve seen it several times, especially among prolific readers– it does get much harder. In my experience, you have to reverse-engineer. A lot.

How, then, do you reconcile these two paradigms in deaf education? By now, you know my answer is Cued Speech. It’s an 100% visual mode of communication that accurately represents spoken language in real-time, so hearing parents can act as complete language models for their deaf children without butchering ASL to fit English structure. And on the flip side, deaf children can attain full immersion in English, whether that is their L1 or L2+ language.

I’ve stated several times that Cued Speech would be the perfect addition to any Bi-Bi program. ASL would stay ASL, and English would stay English, and students would get the benefit of learning how to think in not only two languages, but also two different modalities.

“Deaf Person Hears for the First Time” Videos

You know those emotional YouTube videos of someone’s cochlear implant activation, usually ending in happy exclaims and tears of joy. Friends have shared a few of these on my Facebook wall because I have a cochlear implant too, and really, I don’t mind. Joy is a good thing to spread, and I generally applaud more additions to our bionic army.

If you have any familiarity with the d/hh community, though, you know there are mixed reactions. Some of them get pretty heated. (And the Titanic sprung a leak.) In fact, there was an article on Wired a while back titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Share Those Emotional ‘Deaf Person Hears for the First Time’ Videos.” I disagree somewhat with that article, by the way. So, here’s some middle-ground perspective.

The thing to remember is that these videos are usually of late-deafened individuals who want to hear again, or babies who have no clue what’s going on. The impact will be somewhat different for those who, for whatever reason, don’t regard hearing as a big part of their lives.

I became deaf at eighteen months, so I have always relied far more heavily on sight than sound. When I got my implant at ten years old, my reaction was, “Oh, I can hear more now. Cool.” That was it. I can’t miss what I’ve never had. I’ve also known several late-deafened people who found that they just didn’t really miss their hearing that much.

These videos also don’t show the time and effort that goes into post-surgery recalibration, because you often have some neurolinguistic programming to overcome. It’s not an instantaneous process.[*] As a result, they can give off the mistaken impression that the cochlear implant is a “cure” for deafness. It’s not. It’s an incredibly useful tool, but it doesn’t restore hearing as most people know it.

[*] However, it’s also not the burden that some anti-cochlear implant detractors have made it out to be; I spent one night in the hospital and went back to school after three days, and that was in 2000. CI surgeries have advanced immensely since then, to the point that it’s usually now performed as an outpatient procedure. I also resumed speech therapy as usual, just with a different focus.

ALL THAT SAID. Don’t let anyone guilt you into not sharing or liking these videos. Usually they’re intended to share the original poster’s happiness with the world, not to be hurtful or malicious, and that happiness alone is worth celebrating. The important thing is to keep them in perspective.