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Connecting Visually through Sign Language and Dreams for a Post-Covid World

By Roberta J. Cordano, President, Gallaudet University | Published: July 20, 2021

Humanity thrives on connection and can wither when impeded. During this age of masks and distancing, we have learned at a deeper, more profound level, just how much it means to build bonds with others. To simply be with others.

At the core of connection is language.

Language is how we make sense of the world and build relationships and belonging. It is ever present. With the entry of masks in our daily lives during this pandemic, I experienced a jarring disconnect with so many people in our community, most notably outside our signing community.  Like for many other deaf, hard of hearing and Deafblind people, it has been extraordinarily challenging to communicate. We can no longer rely on reading lips and facial expressions.  Thankfully, some people can use sign language they have learned in high school or college.  Others are comfortable gesturing and/or using speech to text technology on our phones. All of these gestures have been critical to keeping our human connection.

Bobbi Cordano speaking in 2019.

I dream of a different post-Covid-19 world.

In today’s world, we have been taught to value communicating through spoken language over other signed languages. Our communities have created a hierarchy of value based on how we connect to spoken language.

It has not always been this way.

There are small villages in different parts of the world today where everyone knows sign language. Each of them has a small number of deaf people; yet, everyone vacillates between signed and spoken languages naturally.  Likewise, in the U.S., a significant number of people who lived on Martha’s Vineyard from the 1600s–1900s  knew sign language. When researchers ask why people learned sign language, most hearing members of the communities express awkwardness with the question.  Why would anyone be left out in their community? This natural instinct in these communities needs to be explored more in our world today.

For centuries we have faced efforts globally to ban sign language use in the education of deaf and hard of hearing children because of the belief that sign language will harm the learning of speech.  Although cognitive neuroscience studies have debunked these beliefs, they still persist today. In recent years, sign languages are gaining attention around the world, particularly as deaf communities advocate for their governments to recognize their native sign languages. Moreover, the power of visual languages and the experience of connecting with visual expression are increasing in popularity. 

In 1960, a group of linguists at Gallaudet University studied the sign language by deaf people on the campus.  Researchers, led by Dr. William Stokoe, discovered that the visual language used in this community, namely, American Sign Language, was indeed a language in its own right. It was finally proven that deaf and hard of hearing people were doing more than just a manual expression of spoken languages on their hands. This seminal study was a turning point in recognizing the power of the human brain to innovate, create language, and create meaningful human connection beyond the use of ears. 

Studies through the Visual Language and Visual Learning Lab at Gallaudet University are demonstrating the tremendous and varied benefits of learning visual language and the benefits of bilingual learning (visual/sign and aural/spoken language) on brain development, particularly in the early years after birth.  They include enhancing reading skills and comprehension, improving more complex brain functioning especially with music and mathematics, and serving as a protective benefit against diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Health-care and education are predominantly focused on helping deaf and hard of hearing children hear and speak. It’s ironic, because the focus on “fixing” children misses the opportunity to learn from how they adapt through relying on visual language and interactions. What if we could see them as our teachers on how to build a more welcoming and supportive world for all those who lose their hearing throughout their lives, especially when one in eight people 12 years and older has hearing loss in both ears in the U.S.?

Imagine our world if we reversed our ideas about language and hearing loss.  As I shared in an interview that appeared in Medium, what would it be like if we, instead, started to teach all babies sign language and written and spoken language (as they are able), mapping visual language in the brain forever with all the benefits?  When a person loses their hearing later in life, they will already be able to pick up sign language again, as will others around them, and switch back and forth between languages as desired.  We eliminate the isolation that comes with the experience of hearing loss, especially as we age.  We strengthen belonging  for everyone in our communities—mask or no mask.

About the Author

Roberta J. “Bobbi” Cordano is the 11th president of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She is the fourth deaf president, and the first deaf female president, in the university’s history. She has prioritized early acquisition of sign language for all children, and particularly for deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind children. President Cordano is the first president to define and highlight Gallaudet’s economic contribution to our nation’s GDP by recognizing Gallaudet’s unique role in creating and building a multi-billion dollar sign language economy in the United States. She is leading major anti-racism, bilingualism, and innovation imperatives that touch every aspect of the university. She has built the first majority deaf and diverse executive team in Gallaudet’s history. The talent of this team led Gallaudet successfully through the novel coronavirus pandemic and has catapulted Gallaudet’s capacity to provide bilingual hybrid learning in the future. Cordano is a child of deaf parents, both proud alumni of Gallaudet University. She and her spouse have two children. She is fluent in American Sign Language and English.

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