OPINION: Ontario should offer ASL courses to all students

Apr 23, 2023 | Opinion

In a noisy environment, trying to speak to a friend across the room becomes very difficult when relying on lipreading. Most of this comprehension is guesswork.

In situations like these, it could be hard to fully understand everything they’re communicating. Sometimes it’s so frustrating that they just quit.

At a social gathering with a group of friends, I personally experienced this. Sitting at the edge of the table in a lively restaurant, I could not pick up on what the person across from me was saying.

When I look back at that experience now, things could have been different if we had all known sign language.

American Sign Language (ASL) and la langue des signes québécoise (LSQ) are the two forms of sign language used in Canada. The languages are the primary languages for culturally Deaf Canadians but are also used by some hard of hearing, deaf, and even hearing individuals.

According to the Canadian Association of the Deaf, there are 357,000 culturally Deaf Canadians, those who are born in a Deaf community. Statistics Canada reported in 2021 that about 38,270 deaf Canadians use ASL and LSQ, with 14,490 of these individuals living in Ontario.

The number of deaf Ontarians who use ASL may seem small compared to the estimated total population of 15.3 million people in the province. However, ASL is fundamental to Deaf culture and since the introduction of technology such as cochlear implants, there has been less of a push for learning ASL.

Bronwen Alsop, a passionate advocate for the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing communities and a mother to a deaf five-year-old son, said the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS) is dividing the Deaf and hard of hearing community by limiting children’s options to use both ASL and spoken language.

“The reason why ASL is shrinking is because technology is taking away their culture,” Alsop said. “It’s taking away having a community that has more numbers and support. Their culture is dying and it’s true, it is happening.”

She said when an infant with hearing loss is six months of age, the ministry pressures parents of Deaf and hard of hearing children to make the difficult decision to choose either ASL or spoken language for their child. This will be the child’s primary form of language in schools.

“The reasons you’re seeing small numbers is because the ministry and technology is taking that away,” Alsop said. “We don’t want to limit the technology but we also need to address that the reason this is disappearing is because I don’t think the ministry understands that both are very valuable languages for a Deaf and hard of hearing person.”

When more parents are choosing the use of technology for their children with hearing loss, we are losing accessibility to ASL in the education system. Less of an interest in ASL could completely eradicate the use of the language and an existing culture.

Being able to communicate with others is an important part of developing and feeling included. With less people learning ASL, it could restrict the social engagement of Deaf and hard of hearing people and segregate them from society.

Ontario needs to provide more support for the community by enhancing the number of Deaf and hard of hearing schools in the province and encouraging the use of ASL in all schools.

The province has only three provincial schools with the curriculum taught exclusively in a bilingual-bicultural approach for Deaf students whose first language is ASL.

The schools are Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton, Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf in Belleville, and The Robarts School for the Deaf in London.

A Deaf student who wishes to learn mostly in ASL in school would have to attend one of the three provincial schools. This is a problem for students and families who live far away from the campuses.

Many people value spoken language over sign language just because more people are able to speak and use it. Having this mentality only builds a bigger barrier to inclusion and further stigmatizes the community.

Offering ASL for all students, of all ages, would be beneficial to both the future generation of Deaf and hard of hearing communities and of hearing individuals. If more people knew ASL, there would be less of a communication barrier between Deaf and hard of hearing people and hearing individuals.

Providing optional courses in all public schools across Ontario could give more job opportunities for the Deaf and hard of hearing community.

“More education and awareness across the board of schools is the way to move forward,” Alsop said. “It’s not talked about enough and I think it should be incorporated into education and have awareness like other topics that are talked about in the media as a movement.”