Background for Complex Topics
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These issues are likely to arise during discussion, although the discussion questions do not center on this debate. As with any other potentially controversial topic, be sure to employ techniques that ensure all voices are respectfully heard, and that tensions do not mount so as to interfere with constructive discussion.
About 500,000 people in the United States use American Sign Language, a small social-linguistic group within which a diversity of immense proportions poses both challenges and opportunities to the maintenance of cultural boundaries and to its future evolution. For example, the surge in use of cochlear implant technology poses a challenge to Deaf culture. And the growing sense of an international deaf cultural community that transcends national borders presents it with an opportunity.
The vast majority of deaf, hard of hearing and deaf blind children and youth in the United States are raised by parents who hear and speak English or another auditory-oral language. A small fraction (often estimated at less than 5 per cent) have deaf parents whose native language is American Sign Language, who use it at home and in school, and who pass the norms, values and traditions of a culture from one generation to the next, similar to the transmission of other languages and cultures throughout the world.
Many deaf children and youth grow up without signing as a language or with only minimal linguistic input in a form of sign. These children have widely disparate experiences with acquiring American Sign Language, the language that best fits their communicative needs, and becoming enculturated into the Deaf core. These various pathways create one aspect of diversity within the community by marking them in various degrees of separation from the core in terms of cultural identification, language and communication choices, audiometric measures, age of onset, use of amplification technology, and school experiences.
In addition to the complexity facing children and youth in the construction of their identities as deaf, hard of hearing or deaf-blind people, the deaf community contains the same broad array of diverse characteristics that define people in general, including: age, gender, disability, racial and ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation, and social-economic status.
Cochlear implants are changing the deaf community because they enable infants and young children who are deaf to have access to spoken language at much clearer levels and at very early ages when their brains are most primed to learn language. As a result of implants, more children who are deaf will have intelligible speech skills and usable hearing. The challenge for the Deaf cultural core group will be to assure that these children have a right to learn American Sign Language and to learn about their identities as deaf people. Seeing that ASL and Deaf Culture can be retained, even while technology is harnessed, has led more and more deaf adults to get cochlear implants.
It might be wise to set up a separate discussion opportunity that allows participants to hear from experts and Deaf community members who speak to the issue of implants vs. the use of sign language.
International Deaf Community
A growing network of international deaf communities is fostering the concept that deaf people as a community of similar people and separate from their nations. While language, culture and national differences are present, the shared experience of being deaf overrides those differences and allows for cultural bonding based on preference for visual-gestural language and the construction and understanding of human experience based on vision.