Striving for Language Equity: Early Intervention is Key for Language Acquisition in Deaf Children

Girl signing to an adult, whose hands we see.

I recently spoke with Dr. Marla Hatrak, one of our ZERO TO THREE Fellows and President of the National Center on Deaf Advocacy. Marla shared her story and touched on topics including visual language acquisition, inequity in language interventions, and the current challenges facing deaf children in the classroom and the deaf community at large.

I’d love to hear a little about your personal story and your background, and how you came to be involved with ZERO TO THREE.

That question really gets me thinking a lot about my upbringing and my family — and my two children’s upbringing. I grew up in the 1960s. My children grew up in the 1990s. So, obviously my experience and my children’s experience were very different. But we do share some similarities, including growing up in a home with American Sign Language. It was our first language and we had very early exposure. I went to a state school for the deaf in Indiana. My two children were mainstreamed in a local neighborhood school. My parents and my grandparents — all of us, really — are deaf.

I never really thought about being deaf as a thing. Everybody in my world was deaf, until I got to college. And then I started reading research about deaf people that really didn't fit with my knowledge or my experience.

I never really thought about being deaf as a thing. Everybody in my world was deaf, until I got to college. And then I started reading research about deaf people that really didn’t fit with my knowledge or my experience.  These articles would talk about the psychology of deafness and I’d think, “What is that? That’s not my experience at all.” It was roughly 1988 when a friend of mine, Carol Padden, and her partner Tom Humphries, wrote a book called Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture. And it really was just a moment of shock to me: This is my life experience. This book is a fit. They talk about the experiences of deaf people, the fact that deaf people truly have a culture, that American sign language itself is what unites all deaf people.

Although deaf people are as diverse as any other people, we’re all united by sign language. And most deaf people have hearing parents who don’t know sign language. That’s really kind of where the problem starts to appear. That’s where it starts to manifest in those parents that don’t know sign language. For me, I had one hard of hearing child and one deaf child. They went to public schools. Everything came kind of easy to them, and I thought to myself, “What was it? Why did this happen?”

I learned in my graduate studies that being an advocate is a "voice for the voiceless," and being selected as a Fellow has enabled me to advocate for deaf babies' right to acquire a signed language to a wider audience.

I should preface this by saying that most deaf and hard of hearing K through 12 students don’t perform at grade level academically, and I always wondered why my whole life. I think the issue is that instead of looking at K-12, we really need to look at ages 0-5.  When is that critical language acquisition period? Are they developing language? What I saw through my own deaf children’s experience growing up is that all it took was American Sign Language itself. We did a lot of book reading, of course. I read to my children just like any other parent does. I stayed home because I had to take care of their individual education plans (IEPs). We had teams to advocate for them to make sure that they had access to their classrooms.

Once my daughter was in high school, I decided to go back to school to get my master’s in early childhood education, with an emphasis in policy and advocacy. At that point, it was almost like my brain exploded. I saw things in the research, I saw things in articles, things that weren’t happening in deaf education. In these articles they emphasize the importance of being engaged with your community. Most of our deaf education classrooms don’t invite deaf adults into the classroom as part of the team. We don’t bring in those types of role models. When I finished my master’s degree program, I thought to myself, why don’t I go ahead and finish my PhD as well. It was roughly five years, and it had a huge impact on my perspective. I graduated in February of 2022 with my PhD. I needed to get out of my comfort zone and do something different. I knew about ZERO TO THREE and that they were very involved in advocating for policy for children aged 0-3. So, I applied for the fellowship program. I learned in my graduate studies that being an advocate is a “voice for the voiceless,” and being selected as a Fellow has enabled me to advocate for deaf babies’ right to acquire a signed language to a wider audience.

You mentioned that because your children were already part of the American Sign Language community they did well in school. What about the children who do not have that opportunity? What inequities exist between signed and spoken language interventions?

In my dissertation, I showed through content analysis that early hearing screening policies and implementation of those policies are truly slanted to the hearing restoration perspective. In their quest for spoken language, that’s truly the first policy issue that impacts families who find that they have a deaf child. Most of the time they end up stuck — they don’t know what to do. They’ve perhaps never met a deaf adult in their whole life, and all of a sudden they’re thrown into this world where their child is deaf and they’re very dependent on these hearing medical professionals — audiologists who advise them on what to do next.

My dissertation also shows that hearing medical professionals might have what I’ve been calling “psychological motivations” for how they promote the concept of hearing, spoken language, and language acquisition.  And most, if not all, know that American Sign Language has a lot of potential and value, but they continue to push it aside at times. They’re literally pushing American Sign Language out, preventing families from learning sign language, encouraging them not to learn or develop sign language because in their minds, it’ll prevent that child from learning spoken language. But what typically happens is when a deaf child tries to acquire spoken language without the ability to hear it (through deep intervention strategies, not organic intervention strategies) they inevitably fail around five, six, seven years of age. Then they might start to learn sign language. Unfortunately, at that point they’ll have already missed that critical acquisition period for language, which occurs 0-3, 0-5.

There’s a lot of literature out there about early childhood language acquisition. We know that it has to be organic. It can’t be taught or preached — it has to be in a normal, active environment. In these deaf children, their weak sense is essentially hearing, but their strength is in their ability to see things — their visual strengths. We haven’t even started to capitalize on this ability that they have. American Sign Language is still not promoted or recommended to families even to this day.

Over the past few years that I’ve done this work, I’ve noticed that families and their deaf children have become more marginalized. They’ve transitioned away from a more social model — you know we as a community are very social and we have our own culture. But when families become more marginalized, they are essentially pushed out of this community and they don’t feel like they want to become part of it.

I didn’t know that ASL was being discouraged in school systems. And that's shocking, especially because we know so much about dual language learners and how important early second language acquisition is.

I grew up with American Sign Language and English, and my two children did the same. And both of my children have, maybe because of my focus on language acquisition, acquired other languages as well. My son can speak Chinese, Japanese, and some Greek. My daughter knows a little bit of Arabic. It was very natural and easy for them. But you need to have that first foundational language, that first visual language. And then you can learn anything. I strongly believe that deaf children can acquire both American Sign Language and English simultaneously at age 0, at age 3.

When deaf children are not getting that visual language acquisition, how does that affect kindergarten readiness in terms of language, math, or other areas?

There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that oftentimes when deaf children enter kindergarten, they don’t even know their first names. They don’t know their numbers, they don’t know their letters. They don’t know those things that you would expect a kindergartner to know when they’re starting school. I remember my son’s kindergarten teacher really emphasized that her job is to prepare children for academics in first grade. I can’t imagine these deaf children who go into kindergarten and are not even in the same realm as their peers. They have to play catch up that first year. If they remain in this spoken track, it becomes even more difficult to catch up.

Currently, we do have data that shows that deaf children who are late learners of American Sign Language are delayed perpetually — almost for their entire lives.

Currently, we do have data that shows that deaf children who are late learners of American Sign Language are delayed perpetually — almost for their entire lives.  And what we call that is language deprivation syndrome. And if you don’t have language, you can’t read historical books. You can’t read to learn. You can’t read math problems. You need those English skills to be able to succeed. And in order to have those English skills, you need a foundation in that first visual language.

I should emphasize as well that many people think that hard of hearing people should be better off, but our data currently shows that even hard of hearing children at the age of 3 start to show delays in their language should they not be exposed. My biggest grievance right now is that we’re really doing nothing about it.

What progress has been made, and has anything changed since the time your kids were in school? Has anything been done to reduce these inequities?

It’s a really profound question, the concept of change over time. A lot has changed. A lot of our deaf community are now realizing why they had all of those issues, those lifelong struggles. They’re realizing it now as adults. Now they understand we have a much deeper understanding of language deprivation syndrome.

We really don’t have that much political clout, which is the problem these days. There are many people like me trying to show deaf people the importance of focusing on this critical period, 0-3. And we’re educating other people, and advocating for people, and trying to promote the concept of American Sign Language early. People often misconstrue the concept and think that we’re trying to eliminate English or spoken language, but that’s not what we want. We just want to add American Sign Language — specifically just providing these services.

Is there anything that you would like policymakers or educators themselves to better understand about how to serve deaf children?

I think for the people who develop policy, the question is: what do they know about deaf people? How do they know what we need? I think that’s one of the big gripes that I have. Those people that are making decisions for our community don’t know our community. They don’t know what would help our situation. They don’t know what would fix the issues that are popping up. What I would like them to know is that we really need to refocus. The issues that appear in K-12 deaf education arise because of what we’re doing 0-3. We’re going to continue to have problems in K-12 if we don’t fix the issue of early language acquisition. 

What I would like them to know is that we really need to refocus. The issues that appear in K-12 deaf education arise because of what we're doing 0-3. We're going to continue to have problems in K-12 if we don't fix the issue of early language acquisition.

We have many professionals in K-12 — teachers, special educators, legislators. But try finding a deaf person in any one of those positions or professions. There are very few of us. Deaf people have a deaf culture — we have this wealth of community. I grew up navigating the world in a cool way through this deaf lens. We navigate the world differently, but it’s no worse or no better than anybody else. It’s just that these tools that were introduced to our family aren’t being introduced to these other families who happen to have deaf children.

We also have this experience of ableism, or audism, whereby people think that those who can speak are better people than those who can’t speak. We have propaganda that’s published from cochlear implant companies, from hearing aid companies, from audiologists — people who promote their own professional interests above the interest of deaf people’s needs.

0-3 is going to be the critical period. We need to make sure that we create an environment that is highly visual and accessible for these children. Access to sound is not equivalent to access to language, which is something that comes up very often. And that’s why I had to join ZERO TO THREE, just to try to make a difference. To try to figure out a way that we can get a win for these EHDI policies, the early hearing detection and intervention policies for children aged 0-3.

About the Interviewer

Lakshmi Hutchinson is a Writer and Editor in the Professional Innovations Division at ZERO TO THREE. She authors and edits exclusive content for ZERO TO THREE’s membership. She has a master’s degree in elementary education and has written numerous articles for educational and twin parenting websites.

Equitable access to resources is one of the most important factors in determining the long-term well-being of a child.

A graphic promoting the ZERO TO THREE Conference for early childhood professionals.
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