A reader writes:
Oh my goodness. You really waded into a hot-button topic with this one, Andrew. I have a master's degree in Deaf Education, and I'm Deaf myself. Your second reader is really, really off about ASL. So off that I'm sending this quickly while I have a minute rather than sitting down and writing the thorough, citation-filled screed that I want to write. OK, short version:
Cognitively speaking, every child must learn a language. It doesn't matter what language that is, but it must be a true language. ASL is a true language. (Signed English, for example, is not. Cued speech also is not; it's a way to attempt to make spoken English more visible.) Deaf children with DEAF PARENTS – or who are otherwise exposed to ASL from birth – do very well with language. They are able to learn English as a second language because all of the necessary language pathways have been established via early and natural exposure to ASL.
However, 90% of deaf children (small-d = hearing issue, big-D = culture) are born to hearing parents. These days, with infant screening, many hearing issues are caught right away. Historically, parents often didn't figure out that a child was deaf until he or she failed to start talking. So from zero to two or so, that child often had no access to language. Then (assuming that the hearing parent wanted to learn ASL, which frequently is not the case) the hearing parent would have to learn ASL, and then become FLUENT in ASL, which is a difficult language to learn. This meant that even in the best-case scenario, a deaf child with hearing parents would not be getting access to language at home for many years. And this means general cognitive delays, that apply to any language (including English).
Again, cued speech is not a language; it's a means to access spoken English. It can be useful for some. But ASL is a much more widely used and accessible means of communicating. Deaf people almost never speak to each other using cued speech. I am deaf but have a hearing daughter and a hearing husband. I am very active in the Deaf community, and also very active in the hearing community. I am bilingual and bicultural.
I'll leave it there now but the main thing I want to address is the idea that there is anything wrong with ASL. There really, really isn't.
There is nothing wrong with any of the communication approaches. What seems wrong, however, is the intensity of the ‘vs’ debate. The d/Deaf and hard of hearing (d/D/HH) group is one of the most diverse groups you will see in special education. I say special education, because in theory, all children diagnosed with a degree of hearing loss receive special education services to some extent, regardless of their or their parents’ perspective on disability. A singular approach to communication and teaching with children who are d/D/HH is impossible. We (families, educators, and communities) need to view the child as an individual, with individual communication and learning styles, not within the political context of the hearing and d/Deaf communities. The point is access to language, not the "right" way to access language.
Some years back I was friends with a family that had a deaf college-aged daughter. She was completely deaf from birth and was raised on cued speech. She grew up in France (her parents were American missionaries) but then later returned to the States and attended Wellesley College. Because of cued speech, she learned to speak both English and French and could also understand what hearing people were saying by reading their lips (another skill she was able to pick up because of cued speech). Her speech was slightly slurred but completely understandable, and as long as she was within sight of your mouth she was able to speak to you and understand what you were saying back, just like a hearing person. Sometimes I'd even forget she was deaf.
During college she studied Russian and became good enough to spend a few months overseas teaching an ESL class to Russian students, which is difficult enough for any non-native Russian speaker, let alone someone who's deaf. I understand she struggled a bit, but the fact that she even took on the challenge shows the confidence in her own language skills that cued speech was able to instill.
Her mother became very good at cued speech. While they were in France, she taught classes for other parents of deaf children. The mother would sometimes cue the movies they watched on video or TV because it was sometimes difficult for her daughter to read the actors' lips (this was before DVDs and subtitles). She told me that once when two characters were speaking, one in English and the other in French, she used her left hand to cue the English speaker and her right hand to cue the French speaker. I was continually amazed at what this family was able to do with cued speech and how far along they were able to bring their daughter in her education because of it.
Here's a video released by California Department of Education with the collaboration of CSUN's Deaf Studies to promote ASL literacy.
This is a great article on Deaf Culture – it's from 1994 and therefore somewhat dated, but almost all of the basics are covered. Incidentally, this article (which made a huge impression on me, as someone who was just entering Deaf culture) is part of why I'm now a fan of yours. I read the article, lost track of Andrew Solomon, then much later saw your name and thought you were him. I really liked you for writing such a great article! By the time I figured out that you were different people, I had become a fan of the actual Andrew Sullivan.
This whole discussion reminds me of an old Onion article, "Deaf Man's Deaf Friends Way Too Into Deaf Culture."