Thursday, October 13, 2011

ASL, the Deaf Community, and Me

I was going to hold off on this blog subject, but since I officially started my first ASL class today, it seems like a good time for a post about it.

An introduction to ASL:

ASL is American Sign Language. I am new to the subject so most of my knowledge is academic. Just so we are on an even playing field though, here are some interesting things you need to know about sign language:

- Sign Languages are all foreign languages. While most signers also speak their local verbal language while they sign (English for me), each sign language has its own syntax and grammar that is different from spoken languages.  Often you can take a sign and write it's rough English equivalent, but you can do that with Chinese too. Also remember, some signs have multiple meanings based on their syntax and usage. 

- Closely linked to (and most people would say a part of) sign language is finger spelling. That is using simple hand signs to denote letters of the alphabet. This is useful for proper names and signing anything there isn't a sign for. It acts like a bridge between spoken and signed language, but it very commonly used in ASL. Words are spelled in the local language (or the language the signer knows), so ASL finger signs in English usually, but in Europe you might use the same letters to sign in French or Spanish. Different regions also have different finger spelling alphabets.

- There are many different sign languages in the world and they aren't universal. While both the US and England speak English, the British Sign Language (BSL) is much different. ASL is closely related to French Sign Language due to its origins and is used in several countries. Individual countries and regions around the world might have their own sign languages. Here is a list.

- Even within ASL there are regional lexicons and dialects. People might make the same signs slightly differently. There are also larger regional dialects such as Afro-American Sign Language and Hispanic American Sign Language. 

- Like any language, ASL evolves with use. There are "old words that aren't used anymore" and new words and slang added all the time as needed. For example, Internet, Cell phone, iPhone, and Facebook all have signs. 

- ASL users aren't speaking English. There is another method called Signing Exact English (SEE) that is used to teach English. It is slow and tedious to sign. 

- You might also hear about Pidgin Signed English (PSE) which is not a language. Its more of a compromise for bridging the gap between two people who don't speak the same language.  Signers might use more English language structure and non-signers might make up their own comprehensible signs to try to communicate. 

Deaf Culture:

Something else closely related to ASL is Deaf culture or community since they make up the common group that speaks ASL. It is denoted with a capital "D". The Deaf community tends to view deafness as a different type of human experience, not a disability. When you refer to deafness as a medical condition, you use a lowercase "d" in deaf.

I'll just tell you right now that I have never (and don't currently) considered myself a part of Deaf culture. Although I am learning more about it and have recently begun learning American Sign Language. Perhaps in the future I might feel that connection. 

When my hearing loss was discovered as a child, I was about 8 years old, the decision was made that corrective measure such as hearing aides, sitting close to the teacher in classes, and some other technology along with speech therapy and monitoring would allow me to just integrate into a normal classroom and society. It worked for the most part, but mostly because I was very smart and nerdy anyway. I was often ahead of the learning curve and a great reader. Was it the right decision? I can't say, but maybe someday I'll wax philosophically on the subject. 

It does mean that now that I am in my mid-30's and losing more hearing, I am finding things like ASL to be useful tools in communicating. My wife and I already use simply phrases to help speed up communication, especially in noisy places. 

It also means that now it is hard for me to hear spoken language and I don't understand many signs yet so I am at a disadvantage in both languages. My ASL teachers have to be slow and patient and often spell out what a sign means. 

The Teachers:

Speaking of teachers, my first ASL teacher turned out to be the older sister of one of my daughter's preschool friends. They go to different schools now, but we made friends with her family by going to all the same birthday parties and school events. Now we keep up with Facebook and random encounters around the community. While we were at the wedding of a mutual friend, their oldest daughter V (who is in high school) said she had learned ASL from a deaf friend of hers (who I'll call K) and would be happy to teach me as well. 

So my first several ASL lessons were from a high school cheerleader. Life and relationships are funny sometimes. In fact she also interprets songs into ASL (the sign language is more artistic and sweeping) and posts videos online. She gave me permission to share them on the blog. You can watch her awesome interpretative signing on her Youtube Channel.

Her friend K and an adult ASL interpreter named Sarah are starting an after school class once a week for the rest of the school year. One or both of my daughters might go with and they seem to be picking up ASL about as fast as I am. My wife might have to miss it for nap time with my toddler, we shall see, but I'll be going to that regularly. My wife wants to learn too, which is great, because it pointless for me to know it if I can't talk to people using it. If I study and practice, read a few books, and talk with the few friends I know that use ASL... I might just be proficient by the end of the year. Maybe enough that instead of getting a captionist I might just be able to use an ASL interpreter. 

A Little Fun with ASL:

I can still communicate verbally, but ASL has proven to be a useful tool, especially in noisy public situations. It's a different way to communicate though. 

Since it is visual, your ability to communicate is only limited by your ability to see. You can carry on conversations across crowded rooms and large fields without losing much clarity. 

However, with ASL, there is no being discreet. While you can use it like a foreign language to talk about things privately without having to worry about people overhearing your whispers, if anyone does know ASL in the vicinity, they can also eavesdrop without any effort on any conversation you have. So it should be interesting to see how we use this new tool. Also, it doesn't work in the dark at all, so that still doesn't help with me not being able to communicate in the dark (such as waking up in the middle of the night, dark car, etc). 

I'll give updates as I have them, but for the most part, remember I'll just be quietly taking classes for the next year. If you know ASL, feel free to talk and quiz me when you see me.  


"American Sign Language University" is a large collection of ASL resources and practice aids for students and teachers.

App for ASL finger signing practice

Underneath the horrible site design are a number of really great ASL learning tools.

News and entertainment in ASL video format.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Some Interesting Numbers

Hearing loss as a subject is fairly complicated. As I mentioned in the last post, I can really only share my own experiences, but I have a very scientific mind in that I am always learning and researching things (a dangerous habit on the Internet as it can suck your time away).

I wanted to answer the questions "How many deaf people are there in the US?" and "What does the deaf population distribution look like?" like before I get too far into smaller topics or just talking about myself (which a few readers have requested I do more of... and I will soon). I have reason to explore these statistics and I'll explain that below, but the gist of it is, in order to understand myself, I seem to have a curious desire to see where I fit into our bigger society. Well, at least based on numbers, and I think it will help other people to view deaf and hard-of hearing in a different context once they know the details.

Measuring Hearing Loss:

There isn't any single or simple centralized overview of hearing loss statistics and numbers for the general US population. I am looking at numbers classified as disabilities (deafness). Numbers on Deaf individuals (note the capital D) is something else entirely and involves the Deaf community (which you could call statistically an ethnic group).

Why not just check the 2010 Census? Well, because, the 2010 Census data isn't detailed enough or readily available for analysis. You can, using several different surveys, piece together a good picture, however, the definition of "deaf" can vary widely from one agency to another. The National Center for Health Statistics (part of the CDC), the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S.Department of Education, and Gallaudet University all have surveys and resources measuring various aspects of hearing loss for various reasons (mostly political and money related to be honest). Gallaudet has detailed numbers on the students within it's own schools, but that's hardly a reflection of the national situation.

I just named enough organizations to give a normal person a small headache, so I digress. Here is what you should know:

Most surveys depend on people to self report by answering a few questions. The 2000 Census just lumped hearing and vision into a single question called "sensory disability". Surveys concentrating on hearing loss will ask people to self identify and parents usually answer for their children. Most statistics deal with those 3 years and older or 5 years and older. One survey asks, "...difficulty hearing what is said in a normal conversation with another person even when wearing [his/her] hearing aid" another asks, "Which statement best describes your [or child's] hearing (without a hearing aid): good, a little trouble, a lot of trouble, or deaf?" (So which is it, are we measuring with or without a hearing aid active here?)

Results are often listed with labels such as deaf, "functionally deaf" (i.e can't comprehend a verbal conversation with or without hearing aids), profoundly deaf, hard of hearing, some trouble hearing, and "the kid I was surveying plugged their ears and stuck their tongue out at me, so I am marking temporarily deaf" (kidding).

Despite the disparities in measurements, I can confidently say the following.   

The estimated number of hearing-impaired people in North America is more than 25 million in a total population of 300 million (about 8.3% of the population). People who reported "some kind of trouble with their hearing" make up about 14% of the population.

About half of all hard-of-hearing and deaf individuals are elderly over the age of 65.
(Also, this number is increasing and is more common in men.)

There are relatively very few people in the US who are 100% or even "functionally deaf", it's about 0.18%, but under the age of 18 it's even fewer than 1 out of every 1,000.

If you include hard-of-hearing with deaf, the number jumps to 22 in every 1000 or about 0.22%

Deafness or "a lot of trouble hearing" increased dramatically with age, rising from 0.9% among adults under age 45 to 3.1% among adults aged 45-64 and 11.1% among adults aged 65 and over.

In children, one survey of ages 3-17 reported that 5 in every 1000 surveyed have "a lot of trouble hearing". Another study reports that 1 to 3 percent of all children are suffering from hearing loss and up to 14% of children 6 to 19 may have at least a slight hearing loss according to pure-tone audiometrytests, although some of the measured loss could only be temporary. (Remember for the general population that number is still closer to 8%). This is important because, "Children who are hard of hearing will find it much more difficult to learn vocabulary, grammar, word order, idiomatic expressions, and other aspects of verbal communication." I agree. 

Hearing loss will continue to increase worldwide to about 9/10th's of a Billion people by 2015.

Lets stop and turn that around and look at the opposite numbers (slightly rounded)

People with good, normal, or standard hearing by age (people who don't have a hearing loss): 
98% of children
92% of adults 18-45
80% of adults 45-65
60% of adults over 65. 

So... that's a lot of numbers. If you remember nothing else, I want you to know this. Profound hearing loss and deafness is not common. Hearing loss in children is also very small, but having some hearing loss as an adult is growing more common (protect your ears at all times) and the numbers simply go up with age as the ear wears out. Half of all hearing loss is in people 65 and over. 

How does this relate back to me?

I was diagnosed with a hearing loss as a child, when I was in 2nd grade. It is believed that I was either born with a hearing loss or lost it at a very young age. I got my first hearing aides shortly thereafter. There was a big (and legitimate) concern that I would be at a disadvantage learning language and there was great fear of my having a learning or social disability. I didn't actually have great difficulty and I made friends okay. I'll talk about that another time, what I noticed as a child though was that I was unique and these numbers affirm it.

Only 1-3% of children have a hearing loss (basically a loss bad enough to warrant hearing aides).  The numbers for deafness and sever loss are much lower (one survey mentioned 5 in 1000 kids). So if I had 30 kids in my class at school, there is a pretty good chance I would be the only one with a hearing loss. In fact in my entire primary school career, I don't distinctly remember meeting anyone in any of my classes with hearing loss until I got to college. My elementary and middle schools only ever had about 500 kids max and my high school had about 300 in each grade level. Statistically that means there would have been 2-5 kids at each school with a hearing loss similar to mine. They were just in different grades and classes I guess.

I was given many tools and opportunities to simply integrate into society as best I could and I relied heavily on hearing aides to bring my hearing up to an acceptable level of normal. For reasons I will talk about later, this only partially works. There is a Deaf community in the US, basically just a group of people who share a common language and life experience due to the way they hear and interact in the world. I was never part of this group. 

It's odd that I didn't know anyone else who was hard-of-hearing, but also it was interesting how people often tried to help me integrate. I often heard, especially at a young age that I wasn't really different in any way and that hearing loss and hearing aides are just like wearing glasses, just slightly different. I think most kids with any kind of difficulty, physical or mental, will hear this approach many times. It is said to boost your self-esteem of course, but I think adults often say it without realizing that the child knows they are different. It wasn't until recently that I gave this much thought. 

If my own kids are faced with a similar situation, I will not tell them how they are just like other people. I will share with them how they are different. How all people are different in their own way, unique, but beautiful. Dealing with what I viewed as my disability is all about learning your strengths and weaknesses and personality quirks. Acknowledging them and learning to cope, overcome, or live with it. There are things I simply can't do and I have to acknowledge that. There are going to be some people that simply struggle more than others to do some things. That's not a "failure to believe in myself and the power of positive thinking". It is a logical first step to becoming more capable. Its good advice for anyone, I believe all people have things they have to overcome and understand in themselves (popularity? genius? athleticism? anxiety? you name it). 

I just wish someone had shown me these numbers earlier (saving me the time of observational discovery  on my own). Then again, those struggles made me who I am today.

More Resources:
The Prevalence and Incidence of Hearing Loss in Adults

FAQ: Deaf Population of the United States

FAQ: Introduction to Deaf Statistics (which has some interesting links to international numbers)

How Many Deaf People Are There in the United States? Estimates From the Survey of Income and Program Participation

(Yeah, this blog post actually took about 3 times longer then it should have because I spent a few hours reading all of this.)
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