A bill to aid deaf children needs to be “heard” in the Legislature

Photo by John Jordan

As we reach the end of a legislative session surrounded by hundreds of bills that died on the vine, there is one that stands out as worthwhile and urgent: Senate Bill 354, the Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids bill (known as “LEAD-K”). This bill would ensure that deaf children arrive at kindergarten with language milestones commensurate to their hearing peers. The bill would provide quarterly speech and language screenings from birth to age 8 for those families wanting them, set up an advisory committee to develop a parent handbook to help families assist their children in learning language, and allowed for the collection of child assessment data (from birth to 8 years) across Texas.

Neuroscience research shows that babies’ brains do not care if language comes in through the eyes or the ears. But if the baby does not acquire language patterns early, then language deprivation sets in, snowballing into increased delays in the development of visual attention, joint attention, conceptual knowledge, social growth and learning.  Joint attention or shared attention, so important to language learning, refers to the shared focus when the parent alerts the child to an object by means of eye-gazing, pointing or gestural indications. Hearing parents often need training in how to set up visual and joint attention with their deaf babies.

Joint attention supports word learning and at 18 months, hearing toddlers experience an explosion of learning and by age 5 or 6 when they enter kindergarten, and they may speak and understand 8,000 to 12,000 words. However, because of language deprivation, many deaf children at age 5 know fewer than 100 words. This situation frequently gets worse as these children often must repeat grades, have difficulty making friends, experience gaps in world knowledge and struggle with visual  attention—all of which obstructs overall learning.

For a segment of the deaf adult population (about 30 percent), language deprivation creates a “perfect storm” leading to a severe condition called linguistic incompetence.  These deaf adults are functionally illiterate and read at the same level as a seven-year-old hearing child in the ninth month of second grade (2.9 reading grade level) and lack proficiency in English skills and sign language skills. These deaf adults have normal IQs, can produce some speech and have some basic sign language for communication purposes (e.g. to discuss food, bodily functions and express feelings). They are communicatively competent, but they lack the ability to understand the abstract language needed to defend themselves if they become involved in the legal system. These deaf individuals can face seemingly intractable problems from arrest, interrogation, court hearings, incarceration, parole, to probation. Due to their impoverished linguistic skills (linguistic incompetence) in both English and sign language and the resulting lack of general information, they are denied basic rights granted them by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and by state statutes and state constitutions.

This bill would produce critical steps forward in the prevention of language deprivation and linguistic incompetence through early language assessment, monitoring, and early interventions. Unfortunately, these following language-learning myths have stalled its passage:

  • Myth #1: Parents will lose their right to choose a communication mode for their deaf child. In fact, the law as revised by multiple stakeholders would have allowed parents to pursue spoken English, sign language, or both.
  • Myth #2: Speech and language screenings are costly and take too long to administer. The MacArthur-Bates Communication Scale used for spoken language and the Visual Communication Sign Language (VCSL) can be administered in less than one hour, costing less than $2. If a deaf child's language is delayed, then an appropriate intervention can be developed. For example, many babies and toddlers who receive cochlear implants have difficulty with eye gaze behaviors and joint attention. Parents can learn how to develop visual attention with their child, which is extremely important for lipreading, “overseeing” or “overhearing” conversations, and for staying on track in school.
  • Myth #3: Exposing the child to sign language will interfere with speech development. In fact, the research shows the opposite. Sign language provides a conceptual foundation that the child can build upon to develop spoken language. Language deprivation is what impedes development.
  • Myth #4: Only deaf parents can raise a signing deaf child. Decades of research show that hearing signing parents can raise signing deaf children. Today, more and more families are choosing sign bilingualism, which can support their deaf child’s ability to both talk and sign --  using each language accurately and independently for different purposes and tasks.
  • Myth #5: If parents use signing, then their deaf child will have to go to a deaf school where reading levels are lower than public schools. Public and private school student achievement levels often appear higher because these schools have the luxury of screening out children with more severe hearing losses, those with additional disabilities, and those who are not benefiting from their intervention. More importantly, LEAD-K would not take away any private school options for deaf children; it would simply enhance opportunities for language acquisition in the public schools in which the vast majority of deaf children needing assistance find themselves.

We hope SB 354, or something very similar to it, makes it to the governor's desk one day soon. Texas legislators can and should find a way to debunk these myths for all constituents and to pass meaningful legislation that will prevent language deprivation for all deaf children. The kids need us to move forward.

Jean Andrews

Professor emeritus

M. Diane Clark

Professor, Lamar University