The strange reason deaf children aren't taught sign language

Imagine living without a first language. That’s the case for many deaf children in the United States who suffer from “language deprivation,” a condition that could affect them for life.

It’s when kids miss the critical period — which begins to taper off around age 5 — to develop the mental scaffolding that helps the brain understand language. If deaf children are not taught how to sign during this time, they may never learn any language to fluency.

There’s no citable research on the number of deaf individuals at risk for language deprivation, but Naomi Caselli, an assistant professor of deaf studies at Boston University, is “willing to say it’s a majority.”

“There’s a lot of trauma that goes along with it,” she said. “My dad, for example, suffered from language deprivation. His father died when he was a teenager. He never really got to have a real conversation with him. There’s a real, ongoing emotional impact.”

U.S. law mandates that all children born in hospitals are screened for hearing loss, but there’s no law requiring follow-up care. So parents of deaf children, an estimated 90 to 96% of whom are hearing, are left to navigate the confusion alone.

What they encounter is often a slew of bad advice or even outright prejudice against sign language — an antiquated way of thinking that stems back to the late 1880s, experts say.

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