A Hearing Loss & Late Deafened Blog

Why don’t more deaf and hard-of-hearing people learn ASL?

In ASL, Hearing Loss on March 19, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Most the students in my ASL class hear well.  Realizing how small the Deaf population is, it seems another language might be a better choice for them.  Like Spanish.  Working with the public, I could use Spanish almost daily.  It’s extremely rare when a Deaf patron shows up needing help, and in most cases writing will suffice.  It’s not that I don’t want hearing people to take ASL, I just wonder why they do it.  My ASL class isn’t geared toward interpreting.  I don’t expect many of them will get much use out of it after they’re finished.    So I find it interesting to see classrooms full of hearing people learning ASL.  Whenever I get the chance, I ask the other students why they decided to take it.

Usually their answers are: 1)  I saw someone performing ASL to music and I thought it was beautiful.  2)  I know someone who is Deaf- relative, neighbor, co-worker. . . 3)  I needed the credits, and I was curious.

However puzzling it may be to find classes full of hearing people taking ASL, I have been equally mystified by the lack of interest in ASL by my hard-of-hearing and late-deafened peers.  It almost seems the more hearing they lose, the less interested they become in a visual form of communication.  We cling to the spoken word while collecting more and more technical gadgets to help us communicate in English.  I am no exception.

Aside from my hearing aids and standard captioned TV’s, I have stockpiled a large collection of audio equipment– amplifiers, FM systems, loops, wires and the many different sized batteries for each piece.  These all help with communication in various challenging hearing situations.  I have asked many other hard-of-hearing/late-deafened people if they’ve ever considered taking ASL to help with communication.  The majority have not.  They have lots of different reasons.  Some of their reasons make sense.

Among the worst reasons for not taking ASL I’ve heard were: 1) I will never be fluent in ASL, so why bother  2)  I’m not Deaf and ASL is for Deaf people.  OK– my answer to number one is why bother trying anything new if you’re not sure you’ll master it?  And is it that important to be perfect at everything?  My answer to number two is– if you are lip reading with hearing aids and you own a whole bunch of equipment to help you hear in different situations because your aids alone can’t do it, face the fact you are DEAF.  It doesn’t matter if you can talk.

However, there are some good reasons for not taking ASL.  For example, many have looked into taking classes only to find  there weren’t any near home, or at a reasonable time that didn’t conflict with work schedules.  The late-deafened, after all, are not typical college students.  We are usually working people with established careers.  Usually we can’t attend community college classes on weekdays from 10-11am.  I myself had to rearrange my work schedule in order to take the classes I’m in now at 5:45pm two nights a week.  Normally I don’t get off work early enough to make the commute to college.  It wasn’t easy to change my schedule.

Next, many have mentioned the classes in their area were taught for those interested in interpreting.  Interpreting classes sometimes require oral give and take.  Hard-of-hearing and late-deafened often people do not learn well in oral ASL classes.  Luckily all the classes I’ve taken were taught by deaf people who did not allow voices in class.

Further, most of us aren’t interested in a grade or doing tons of written assignments and powerpoint projects in order to learn a language.  There is a way aroung this if you audit your classes, which will free you from having to do any homework.  That way you can concentrate only on learning the language without having to jump through all the extra assignment hoops.  This has worked pretty well for me.  The main thing is having a teacher agreeable to giving permission with each new level.  Since mine knows my situation, she’s fine with the arrangement.

Another common reason not to take ASL is that hearing people, including most our relatives and friends, don’t use ASL.  True enough!  I need others to speak ASL to me.  If they can’t or won’t learn ASL, how will I benefit by learning ASL alone?  I have been working hard with my husband to get him to fingerspell, and it’s finally paying off.  When I don’t understand a word, he can spell it.  That helps a LOT.

This past week we were taking a tour through a noisy lapidary shop.  I asked my dad’s friend what kind of rock he was polishing.  He said the name of it, then kept on talking.  I could not read his lips well, as he wasn’t facing me.  I didn’t want to interrupt to ask a second time, so I fingerspelled my guess to my husband “J-A-D-E?” He nodded his hand in the “yes” sign.  This is exactly how I had envisioned using ASL with my family before beginning with the classes.  Not as our first language, but just for clarification purposes when needed.  It worked perfectly.  I didn’t have to interrupt, but could verify the name of the rock with my husband without bothering others.

The last reason some give for not learning ASL is they simply aren’t interested.  Maybe they hear well enough with their aids or cochlear implants.  I understand ASL isn’t for everyone.  I DO!  However, I personally don’t hear that well with my hearing aids and I benefit when people can fill in the blanks with a sign here and there.  I love it when people talk and sign at the same time.   Also I don’t like to wear my aids all the time because my molds are uncomfortable.  ASL is helpful to me.  The freedom it has given me is unmatched by any technical devices on the market.

I realize not everyone wants or needs ASL, which is why I so appreciate those who have gone to the extra effort to learn a few signs and the alphabet.  It means the world to me.

  1. I just stumbled upon your blog and decided I would like to give you my answers. First of all, I am not deaf. I grew up with someone who is deaf and I pursued audiology in college and grad school. I took ASL classes at our university, but I will admit there were no deaf people in the class. I found that the people in deaf community, where I lived, were happy to know that hearing people were trying to learn their language.

    I am also a mother. I have a 7 yr old daughter and my triplet boys are going to be 3 soon. I started using sign language with my daughter, but I dropped the ball with her after she learned to speak. I regret that decision. My sons were born 13 weeks premature and I knew that they would be facing some delays. I had been told by many families to check out http://www.signingtime.com or watch it on PBS. The second I started playing the dvds for my boys, they were hooked and I was hooked! My kids learned sign language to help them express themselves before they were able to verbally. My kids are now speaking but that doesn’t mean they will stop signing.

    I started teaching sign language to the students at my school. I was hoping that I would have at least 25 kids interested in joining my after school club. I was blown away when I had more than 130 kids want to sign up! I have heard stories of my students meeting a deaf person out in the community and their excitement of being able to communicate with them. I also find that the deaf community thinks it’s wonderful that a child, who is hearing, is trying to learn their language. It knocks down a lot of barriers for both children and adults.

    I had never thought about how people learn ASL who lose their hearing later in life. I hope that more people can find the resources in their community. I think it’s wonderful that your husband is learning to sign with you! If I can even make communication easier for one person, than my learning sign language was worth it.

  2. I feel the same way that it means the world to me when they learn
    a few signs and the alphabet. Some hearing people come to me and talk
    with me in the sign language (ususally at the library when we go in for Toddlers’ Reading Aloud Program weekly)


  3. I often wonder if those deaf patrons who really need to learn ASL are intimidated by the ASL classes filled with hearing people? I mean, do think about it, why would a deaf person want to come to an ASL class, then learn that it’s filled with hearing people who really do not understand the depths of hearing loss and the problems associated with communicating to the hearing world, and find that he/she cannot live in his own skin (deafness) and be comfortable communicating signs? with hearing people, of all people?

  4. When I grew up, I was surrounded by hearing people, and hearing people only. So point blank, I never had a reason to learn it. Once I learned it, I would soon forget it because I would never use it. I speak fairly well, communicate only with hearing people. Read lips, and wear hearing aids. I am Hard of Hearing. I also learned Cued Speech, not ASL. Cued was easier for me to understand.

    Now, I am in college and facing the real world I am going to see more deaf, HOH, HI, people. They will want to communicate with me but I cannot. So that is why I plan to learn ASL so I can communicate with those who do know ASL. Hope you understand my point of view!


  5. Do you even have to ask why so many hearing people want to learn sign language? The reason should be obvious. ASL is the COOLIST THING EVER! It’s so great. It’s so fun to learn, although at times complex and frustrating. Most of the time it is a BLAST. Plus, it is language in a different modality so you can communicate under pretty much any circumstance when speech is ineffective/inappropriate – boring lectures, underwater if you go scuba diving, across a crowded room, at a noisy concert, etc, etc. PLUS you can watch and understand all the cool vlogs on DeafRead. Who could ask for more?

  6. Ann_C– That’s a really very insightful comment. If not for the fact my ASL class is taught by a deaf teacher, I myself might feel uncomfortable in it. Because she is d/Deaf I feel better being surrounded by hearing people. Also, like Alex above– most all of my friends and family are hearing, so I’m used to being around hearing people.

  7. Alex– Good Luck! 🙂 I bet you’ll pick it up fast.

  8. Kate– These are all great points about ASL. I especially like being able to talk across large rooms. In a crowded movie theater I can ask my husband if he wants a drink and what kind when I go get popcorn– even if I’m way down the aisle or standing by the door. Hearing people cannot talk to someone on the other side of the room without shouting in public. 🙂

  9. To add to your list of why and why not learn ASL:

    Why learn–Novelty, exoticness…ASL looks to many people like an easy, different way to communicate that distinguishes one from one’s friends and awes other people. I have had people come up to me and try their newly-learned ASL in public, just to impress their companions. It looks like pure fun, different than learning Spanish or Italian with rote written lessons and memorizing of conjugated verbs.

    (Why children learn)–The attraction of a secret, special language to be shared only within one’s circle. This goes with secret code rings and walkie talkies that transmit Morse code.

    Why not learn–People trained in oral/aural methods regard ASL as a poor man’s language, a crutch that degrades English language. They hold the belief that it will impair learning of English especially by young Deaf children. A cultural bias in some people is that waving one’s hands while talking is a characteristic of ignorant people and is therefore embarrassing.

    Why not learn–Orally/aurally trained people may feel that learning ASL is an admission of failure and avoid it in the belief they can hear and talk well enough.

    Why not learn–One was told by certain professionals that ASL is: (bad, dangerous, not a language, a bastard form of English, for limited Deaf people, etc.) ASL has a stigma to these people.

  10. Dianrez–
    That’s a great point that learning ASL may seem like an admission of failure for late-deafened people. I hadn’t thought of that.

    Also– the cultural bias about waving hands while speaking. Yet I know people who have taken ASL just for that reason too. Because when you speak using facial expressions and hands you are much more interesting. Americans tend to be wooden when they speak. We sit stiffly and barely move our lips compared to Europeans. But if you notice professional speakers, usually they are much more animated with their hands and faces– and that’s why people sit up and listen. They’re INTERSTING! 🙂

  11. I was clicking on a rabbit’s trail of websites and came across the SayWhat blog and found your post. I am a late deafened adult with a progressive hearing loss. I got my first pair of HA’s 16 years ago; I now have a cochlear implant and am going bilateral in July. It was really tough to face the fact my second ear is now shot, too. It does feel like an admission of failure as Dianrez said. But once I accepted it, I decided to try using a video phone, since the captions on my phone are, as pointed out in another post, limited in their accuracy.

    But I find the video phone intimidating. I thought I could speechread pretty well…until I tried to do it with a time delay! The VCO relay operators speak what the person is saying AND sign it. So, now I have a solid motivation to learn ASL. I have always reasoned, I don’t know any deaf people, and no hearing people around me sign, so it wouldn’t have benefitted me. But now with the video phone, learning ASL will benefit me a LOT.

    So I looked at the local community college. One ASL course that is half over, and not offered again in the summer, although probably in the fall. That’s a loooong time to wait! (Can you tell I’m not very patient??) I have a dvd I bought ages ago, a “teach yourself ASL” course. That is certainly a poor substitute for a class with real people, whether they are hearing or deaf! But I hope it will help me at least get started. If I have the discipline to actually DO it.

    I also use Cued Speech. I work at a school that mainstreams D/HOH students using cued speech. I started working there when my first ear crashed. It works SO well, because all my colleagues know how to cue, and I’m picking up my receptive cueing more than I ever thought I would. There, I feel like my hearing loss is actually a benefit rather than a deficit, because I have a special connection with the D/HOH students. One boy was about spitting nickels when he figured out I was getting a “thing” like his!

    I’m going to have to bookmark this blog and the SayWhat blog. The posts here all talk about my experiences, too, and it’s so good to read people who “get it” about hearing loss.

    Thanks for your posts.

  12. I’ve been deaf/hoh since age 4. I’ve always been around hearing people and the only ones I know who use sign are the friends I’ve met in the SWC. I’ve tried to learn ASL but have discovered that unless you use it all the time, it’s easily forgotten. I’d love to take a class but the ones I’ve found are usually at night and involve a long drive or are too expensive for my budget.

  13. Even though I lost my hearing, I did not ever give up *wanting* to hear.

    And learning to sign would not do anything to help me to reach my goal of being able to hear.

    It wasn’t so much that learning to sign was an admission of failure, as much as it would not lead me to my goal of hearing.

    It is like driving on the interstate and taking the exit that said ‘Milwuakee’, when the goal is to go to Orlando. I am sure Milwaukee is a very nice city, but no one would mistake it for Orlando.

    As it turned out, when all my hearing had gone away, and things looked bleakest,
    I found the SayWhatClub, and eventually I received a cochlear implant.

    And I CAN HEAR, and I CAN UNDERSTAND what I hear, and I have reached my goal. And life is good. Very, very good.

    And like athletes say after winning the championship, “I’m going to Disneyworld!” In Orlando.

    Sorry, Milwaukee.

  14. Liz and Cathy,
    Lack of convenience and cost are two of the biggest hurdles for late-deafened people learning ASL. Most of us have careers and hearing spouses/friends/relatives who do not sign as well, so there is often little motivation. While it’s always nice to make ‘new’ friends, I already have a bunch of friends and a life. What I would like is for my existing friends to learn ASL. Is that too much to ask? Probably. I also feel very intimidated by the VRS Liz. I’ve tried it and felt strange using it. I’m not really fluent in ASL and I know others who depend on it may find me difficult to understand.

    Curveball– I’ve never stopped wanting to hear either. No need to apologize. It was really just a question. I’m not judging anyone. If I qualified for the CI, I would think about getting one, but I only qualified for the experimental hybrid. I don’t want to be a guinea pig. There are still some big risks associated with it– the hybrid, not the regular CI.

    Kim 🙂

  15. I am profoundly hard of hearing but function well in the hearing world. I have not desire to learn ASL because I don’t know anyone who will communicate with me in that language. It is unfortunate that so many people do not know the difference between Deaf and hard of hearing. There are 10 million or more of us in the United States and we are not members of the Deaf Community where ASL is the primary means of communication.

  16. I stumbled upon your blog because I was doing a paper for my ASL class. I am a hearing person and taking ASL 1 this quarter. Your question as to why deaf or h.o.h. people won’t learn ASL is a little surprising to me given the fact that I never really given it much attention, or at least, I never realized that this phenomena exists. I know one person that I interact with on a day to day basis (my co-worker) who is deaf. Other than her, I am not really exposed to the deaf community all that much other than in class.

    It is true that all of my classmates are hearing and it is fascinating that this much hearing people are interested in learning ASL. I did too, asked my classmates why they are taking ASL and the answers that you came up are synonymous to the answers that you were presented with. As for me, I am taking ASL because of my long time fascination with the different means of communication. However, as my career ventured into the education world, I see the value of learning ASL in a different light – that is that it is an extremely helpful tool in both the special education world and the general education world.

    To go back to your point, I think, in my perception of it, that deaf of h.o.h. people are adamant in learning ASL because either a) they already know or b) is a sign of giving in to their “disability.” Point a. is a moot point since if they already know the language, why would they need to re-learn it again? Point b. is more troubling for me because I don’t see being deaf or being hard of hearing as a “disability,” hence, the quotation around it. But I have learned throughout the course of this quarter that many hard of hearing people are still trying to cope with their loss of hearing, and they perceive learning ASL as a way of accepting deafness as a disadvantage. It’s like they are trying to hold on to something that they know is going to slip away anyway but sees the fight as a nobel one.

  17. Hi Michael 🙂
    While it’s true that most Deaf people don’t see deafness as a disability, most late-deafened DO. Neither Deaf or deaf are wrong in their perceptions. The difference lies in the fact that the late-deafened have lost the ability to communicate in their first language, often rather abruptly and they have no language to replace that. Considering that it takes roughly six to seven years to become fluent in any language, (and ASL is no different), it can seem a daunting task to take up ASL. The majority of people who lose their hearing late in life are over 65. They may have other medical issues like arthritis in addition to the hearing loss. It can be hard to speak with your hands when it hurts to move your hands. Then of course, there’s a loss of life as one knows it. Those who grow up with ASL are usually surrounded by friends and family who speak their language. The late-deafened are isolated because they’ve lived their lives among the hearing. There’s usually a lot of resistance to learn ASL from family members. It’s hard for them to grasp that YOU can still talk, but can’t hear. THEY are the ones who must learn ASL for you to benefit, not the other way around. So I agree that if a person is born Deaf and grows up signing, then they may not feel ‘disabled’, but the late-deafened most definitely do disabled, unless they learn ASL, can find a job where ASL is accepted, and switch friends, family members cooperate, etc., etc.

    Still– I think if they tried learning without expecting fluency, many would find it quite helpful. But like you said, they feel they’re “giving in” to the disability.

  18. i personally am hard of hearing and i love it i can communicate to both hearing people and deaf people. i learned asl when i was a baby and i have no regrets learning it. i took asl during my high school year to learn more and learn the history and to my surprise many hearing and deaf student are interested in the langusge as well. so in my opinion hearing people should learn asl and embrace it for what it really is… a language, a beutiful and soulful language.

  19. what about what its like to not be able to see your toes allow alone place your shoes on.
    i remember a lot of flip flops…

  20. Well, here I am again – was on SWC back in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s whenever it was just a chat board on AOL, long before the Internet and WWW. SOoo some will remember (vaguely) me, and others don’t – and so, I was born evidently hearing, we discover in retrospect. But my hearing started taking a hit and my parents didn’t know why (hearing). Turns out, years later, I have been sorting through the puzzle pieces based on information about events that did or didn’t happen before I was born. In a nutshell, my parents had Rh blood factor incompatibility because my mom’s blood was incorrectly typed as positive, before I was born. She is, in fact, negative blood type. So – doctor wasn’t aware he had made a mistake – this was in the early 1960’s before the prenatal rhogam shots were invented, and so I was never treated properly with the appropriate shot series that evidently were supposed to take place at specific intervals after my birth.

    So anyway I basically lived my entire life with a hearing family and there was really a lot of denial going on and so no real attempt to use sign language. In fact, it was discouraged more often than not. At one point, a church group got together to learn SEE and in taking those classes, I could sense even then, as a teenager, how ridiculously constructed those signs were – they just seemed asinine. And, ever being in denial, my folks would come home after classes and say “oh well, you don’t really need it, you lipread so well….” and all of that blah blah.

    What they didn’t know was that Rh blood factor hearing losses continue to get worse – and now that I’m in my 50’s, lipreading isn’t a given. My eyesight is getting worse, with fuzzy details where I need the sharp clarity for lipreading. I’m doing good some days to tell that the person in front of me is male or female, let alone who are they and have I ever lipread them before.

    When I have gone to ASL classes offered at the local deaf association or to local ASL classes in schools, churches over the years, as part of SHHH (Self Help for Hard of Hearing, now known as Hearing Loss Association of America), the thing that happens is that I get marginally better at producing some but my family – now all grown and gone, and my friends are NOT there. THEY are the ones I want to communicate with and THEY are the ones who see “No Need To Learn ASL”… many of the deaf acquaintances at the local deaf clubs do not share my various outlook on life, spiritually, or life experiences, my history, my relatives, etc and so I find myself wanting to limit my contact with the local deaf group (like people will just be cursing for no reason, or constantly gossiping or making fun of personal idiosyncrasies or whatever – I’m just not a part of the “Deaf” culture.

    And so that’s kind of the Catch-22 as to why I end up, as a Hard of Hearing going on Late-Deafened person, not really learning ASL. It’s because my “tribe” doesn’t go with me to learn ASL. There’s all the various excuses on their end that are very similar to the comments elsewhere in this blog article and comments, and in the end, I just kinda feel unloved, like why am I having to constantly advocate and remind people over and over and over – please stand here, so the light glare is not behind you, please don’t cover your mouth, please take the gum or candy out of your mouth, please please please whatever it takes to improve communication – please text me, don’t call me, etc.

    Hope that clarifies an issue that I think some may also have but not really verbalizing, the unwillingness to completely cut off contact with the hearing family and friends that one grew up with, where we are the ones who cross the bridge to make ourselves “accessible” to the hearing by using our voices and burning out our eyeballs straining to lipread and the public indignity of having hearing aid batteries die or fail us in assorted ways…when the hearing people don’t come over to our side of the bridge by using some sign, writing notes, speaking clearer and maybe a tad slower, facing us carefully, etc.

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