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Not Everyone with Hearing Loss Knows Sign Language

For most people with hearing loss, a sign language interpreter is not helpful.

Key points

  • Most people with hearing loss do not know sign langage.
  • A sign language interpreter is not an effective accommodation for most people with hearing loss.
  • Education is needed so appropriate accommodations are provided for people with hearing loss.

We would love for you to make videos to reach a hearing loss audience, the media rep suggested. “Sure, that sounds good,” I replied, “assuming the videos would be captioned, of course.” “But wouldn’t you just sign in them?” she asked with some confusion.

RDNE Stock project / Pexels
Source: RDNE Stock project / Pexels

I stopped dead in my tracks in surprise. “Most people with hearing loss, myself included, don’t know sign language,” I explained, “particularly if we acquired our hearing issues later in life.”

“I didn’t know that,” she said.

I was disappointed. If an intelligent, educated person working in media for a patient advocacy company doesn't know this basic fact about people with hearing loss, imagine the ignorance of the general public.

Sign Language is a Beautiful Language

Sign language is a beautiful language that works well for people in the Deaf community, but as someone who developed hearing loss later in life, it is not a workable option for me, unless I wanted to change almost everything about my life. I prefer to augment my residual hearing with technology to remain firmly in the hearing world.

Even so, I have always been curious about sign language — ever since learning how to finger spell in grade school, well before my hearing issues began. A hearing loss friend and I took several sign language lessons a few years ago. It was fun, but also challenging.

American Sign Language (ASL) does not mirror spoken English in sentence construction, which made it hard for us to translate our thoughts into this new visual way of communicating. Between lessons, we also lost a lot of what we had learned, since we didn’t have any consistent practice partners. Eventually we stopped the sessions.

Sign Language ≠ Accessibility for Most People With Hearing Loss

At first, I shrugged off my experience with the media rep with a roll of my eyes and a chuckle, similar to the times when people have told me that I don’t look deaf. But upon further reflection, this mistake seemed different. The misperception that people with hearing loss generally know sign language could have serious ramifications for accessibility.

According to Wikipedia, there are 250,000 – 500,000 people using ASL today in the United States, including a number of children of deaf adults. This represents about 1% of the estimated 48 million people in the United States with hearing loss, meaning sign language is not the norm for the vast majority of people who have trouble hearing.

Much education about how to make things more accessible for people with hearing loss is needed. Sometimes, when people with hearing loss ask for an accommodation at a hospital or museum, they are told that the only available option is a sign language interpreter. This should not be the case.

As people with hearing loss outside of the Deaf community, we must continue to raise awareness with legislators, leaders at cultural institutions, medical facilities, and schools as well as with the general public about the accessibility options that work best for us.

These include things like assistive listening devices (i.e., pocket talkers, FM or infrared systems), captioning of all types, and hearing loops. Even paper and pencil can be helpful when used effectively.

The one accommodation that will not work for most of us is ASL.

Copyright: Living With Hearing Loss/Shari Eberts. Reprinted with permission.

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