By Isaac Flink (he/his), Tommy Huang (he/his), Mike Kellett (he/his), Jonathan MacDonald (he/his), Kelly Sizto (she/her), Jo Smith (she/her), Christina Wilson (she/her), Madison Yaworski (she/her), teachers, British Columbia School for the Deaf (BCSD)
Before William Stokoe (a hearing person) defined the linguistics of American Sign Language (ASL) in 1965, even culturally deaf* people had been taught to believe it was not a legitimate language. He identified the syntax and morphology that make it a true language, rather than a system of gestures. While many people have heard of ASL, there is a widespread misconception that it is a universal signed language. Just as there is no universal spoken language, there are over 300 signed languages worldwide, and there are at least 5 in Canada alone: ASL, Langue des Signes du Quebec (LSQ), Maritime Sign Language (used in Atlantic Canada), Oneida Sign Language, Inuit Sign Language, Plains Sign Language, and many other Indigenous sign languages. ASL is used across Anglophone North America and has roots in several sources: Indigenous sign languages, French Sign Language (through Laurent Clerc, also known as the apostle of the Deaf in America), and Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (a dialect local to a small island in Massachusetts).
Signed languages were used extensively until a conference in Milan, Italy in 1880. At this meeting of (mostly hearing) educators, there was a bias toward oral education and the use of speech, and it was voted that signed languages were banned in educational settings. Unfortunately, this disconnect between natural language and education continued well into the 20th century, even after Stokoe’s publications. In the absence of formal signed languages, other manual forms of communication were developed, including Signed Exact English I and II and Cued Speech. These systems of communication are used to manually represent English and are not distinct languages.
After 130 years, the 1880 Milan vote was overturned in 2010 at the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf held in Vancouver, BC. But the damage had been done: Deaf people were deprived from their true language for the comfort of the rest of society for more than a century.
Support for ASL is coming back slowly: instead of creating a unifying mode of communication, we are now celebrating different languages and modes. Sign language is popping up everywhere on social media and in pop culture, with people teaching it on Instagram, Deaf themes and actors featured in movies and TV, and an interpreter presence in news reports.
Our ableist world often encourages culturally deaf people to become “more hearing” rather than celebrating their abilities as they are. Some are framed from birth with the lens of “failing” a test, and throughout life are expected to learn lip-reading and spend hours training in speech skills to fit in with the norm of spoken language. Each person who chooses to use assistive hearing technology will access sound differently, not to mention the complexities of processing sound as language. There is so much variance in deafness that visual language is the only mode of communication that is reliable enough to use with everyone, including people who are Deaf-Blind (BCSD has a program for that, too!).
Because signed languages originate in specific geographic locations, they encompass the soul of the peoples who craft and use them. They are filled with culture, history, experience, story, and are a means of building identity and connection. Using ASL allows culturally deaf people to confidently express themselves, improving equity for deaf people to be seen and heard without limitations.
BCSD is a school designed around visual language and the culture surrounding its use. It is built on a philosophy of celebrating the use of visual language and the true self-expression that comes with it. Focusing on visual language allows communication of feelings, desires, dislikes, and abstract thought. When the language of instruction is ASL, students can receive information effortlessly. This contrasts “listening fatigue,” which is the exhaustion associated with attending to an interpreter or trying to process bits and pieces of conversation. Additionally, some students arrive at BCSD exhibiting behaviour disorders. Teachers note that when communication breakdowns are reduced, the student’s frustration and problem behaviour often subsides accordingly.
Our school has two campuses: one at South Slope Elementary and one at Burnaby South Secondary. It also has a community commons called the Deaf Pod, which is a flexible, open space for students to gather socially during breaks or for productive group learning during class. The focus on visual language creates a tight-knit community of language users, building a strong support network and creating pride among individuals.
Most teachers and educational assistants (many of whom are Deaf and Hard of Hearing) use fluent ASL in real-time teaching communication. Our team also has several passionate hearing teachers who are eagerly learning ASL! Hearing staff are welcomed into the BCSD community and are quickly immersed in deaf space and culture. Hearing teachers become aware of their “hearing privilege,” a term that refers to the multitude of advantages hearing people enjoy in a world that assumes and rewards people for their hearing status.
Classrooms at BCSD are set up to optimize visual learning. For example, many classrooms are set up in a horse-shoe design because it provides the best sight lines for class discussions. For Deaf-Blind students, the school focuses on routine and space. Deaf-Blind students need consistency to predict their next steps. Hallways are kept as clear as possible and classrooms need to be free of clutter so they can find what they need independently. Once in a while, we rearrange classroom spaces to encourage problem-solving and relearning.
Some students at BCSD take main-streamed classes with interpreters. The school features a dormitory where students are supported in extra-curricular activities and studies by staff who are familiar with ASL or are native ASL users, have meals and social time together, and are provided access to even more community resources.
Outside of these signing spaces, many students struggle to be understood and to feel connected to people around them—even at home. Coming to BCSD provides an opportunity to connect with those with similar experiences, meet role models, and flourish.
There are many students across the province who use visual language but are not able to attend BCSD and are instead enrolled in mainstreamed programs. It is still important to support visual language use to help these students connect and flourish. Even if you are not proficient in ASL, all you need is patience and a willingness to navigate visual space.
Culturally deaf people are often the ones to reach further over the gap. We encourage hearing people who are afraid of making mistakes to just go for it—gesturing, miming, and facial expressions are things that cross language barriers and are much more efficient (and entertaining!) than trying to force one sense to do the job of another. All of us have busy lives, and learning a new language is an intimidating goal. Instead, we suggest you start small: begin by using gestures and drawing pictures to initiate conversations with deaf students. Later, take time to learn a few basic signs. “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “How are you?” go a long way to helping deaf students feel seen and welcome in hearing spaces.
The use of visual language is an important part of ensuring all students have equitable access to education and equitable opportunity in all spaces. We encourage all teachers to take a moment to reflect on your classroom space and teaching practice. Language barriers exist for students both hearing and deaf. The interpreter is not there for the Deaf person. The interpreter is there because there are people who know ASL and there are people who don’t know ASL in the same room. By opening our minds to various modes of communication and visual language we can create opportunities that match individual learning needs.
The Provincial Outreach Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is an excellent resource that teachers can use to find ways to support their signing students: www.popdhh.ca. To learn more about the need for language development in young people, check out @language1st on Instagram.