The invention of cochlear implants and other technologies have given many deaf and hard-of-hearing adults and children the option to hear. What, then, becomes of sign language?
When the world gets too loud—because of fireworks, or just to take a quiet break on the weekends—8-year-old Sophie knows what to do. "When it's really loud, I just take the magnet off," she says. She's deaf and has had a cochlear implant that's helped her hear since she was a year old. But she knows by moving that magnet she can stop the device from bringing her sound.
More than 1 in 500 children in the United States is born deaf or hard of hearing, making it the most common congenital sensory problem in the country. Technological advances, like Sophie's cochlear implants, now give many children the ability to hear and communicate with spoken English from the time they are babies.
Sitting next to her on the couch in their living room, Sophie's mom Samantha Zawislak says getting her daughter a cochlear implant, which requires surgery, was a difficult decision.
"We didn't ever want our daughter to think that she's broken or not complete somehow," Zawislak says. "[But] There is this really neat technology that if you're the appropriate candidate and if you do it soon enough, children who are deaf have access to sound and can use their voice if they choose to speak."
Sign language is a vital means of communication for many members of the deaf and hard of hearing communities. Sophie can hear now and make her own decisions about how to communicate. Even though her parents sign to her, Sophie responds to them in spoken English. When her mom asks why, Sophie explains that they can hear, so she wants to speak. Zawislak says she wants her daughter, who attends the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, to have the power to define her own identity.
"Ultimately at the end of the day that child's going to grow up and find out who they are, and it might be hearing, it might be deaf," she reasons. "And we have chosen to accept that Sophie already identifies as being deaf and we're comfortable with with, she wants to go to the deaf university, to Gallaudet and we're very proud of that."
Children who are deaf learn, without sign language. Other children who are deaf, or hard of hearing, are on a different educational path, where sign language is much less visible. At the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, which has five locations across the country, all of the students use sound amplification devices, including cochlear implants and hearing aids. Clarke School teaches listening and spoken language, but not sign language. Instead, they learn to listen and speak, with the goal of succeeding in mainstream classrooms alongside their typically hearing peers.