“Cued Speech is just a tool.”

And sometimes that’s followed up with “…not a communication method.”

Well, first off, I’m a native cuer. I can cue anything to another cuer, and he’ll understand everything I say, and vice versa. It doesn’t matter if we voice or not; all the phonetic components of English are right there on our lips and hands. That is communication! It’s complete language access.

If you want to get picky about it, everything is a tool– i.e., a way to accomplish a particular end. Even sign language is a tool. Spoken language is a tool. Written language is a tool. They’re all ways of communicating. Cued Speech is an exact representation of an existing language.

The nice thing about Cued Speech is that it can be used by itself, voiced or unvoiced, alongside sign language, as a speech therapy support, as reading/vocabulary support, with d/hh kids, with autistic or learning-disabled kids, with ESL speakers…

The key word there is “can.” Its use is ultimately up to whoever uses it. Really, the fact that Cued Speech is a tool is probably its greatest strength: it can fit into a variety of approaches without detracting from their central philosophies.

Why Not Both?

Growing up, I never really saw a conflict between sign language and Cued Speech. Even if I couldn’t quite articulate it yet at four years old, I could tell they were different and didn’t see any reason to pick one over the other. As I got older, people asked me about the difference, so I’d tell them that signs are based on words and cues are based on sounds. Sometimes they’d ask me which I liked better, and I couldn’t really answer because, well, it was like comparing apples and oranges. Later on, when I connected with other deaf adult cuers, I found that we’d often code-switch between Cued Speech and American Sign Language.

All of this, by the way, mirrors my experiences with other languages– notably, Mandarin and my 2011 study abroad in Beijing with other international students. We jumped between languages a lot, depending on what was most appropriate for the context. (One of these days, I need to post my story about having a conversation in ASL with the one other hard-of-hearing guy in the program, after a semester of full immersion in Mandarin.)

Personally, I find ASL useful for expressing emotions that may not have an appropriate English equivalent, whereas Cued English helps me articulate concepts in a precise, orderly manner. Sometimes I’ll combine the two– for example, I may use a classifier on my left hand to show spatial placement or shape while cueing a description with my right hand. That’s just me, though; others will almost certainly differ.

Some people seem to think using both will “confuse” deaf children. Thing is, I know people in Europe who grew up speaking as many as five, six different languages. Why can’t deaf kids achieve the same thing through ASL and Cued English? We’ve got reams and reams of research out there supporting bilingual education. Personally, I think Cued English would tie in perfectly with the Bilingual-Bicultural educational model in residential schools now, and I’ve spoken to several educators who feel the same way.

That said, I do understand the concern about Cued Speech taking precedence over ASL, or favoring a purely auditory-oral/”fixing deaf people” approach reminiscent of the days of Bell (as well-intentioned as he was). No matter how good our technological and educational approaches become, there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution; and we will probably always have a varying spectrum of deaf people in terms of language and speech production.

A fellow cuer, Aaron Rose, recently said of American Sign Language and Cued Speech, “You’re comparing apples and oranges, but at the same time both are used to nourish the body.” And that’s really probably the best way to look at it.