Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Education and health of children with hearing loss: the necessity of signed languages

Joseph J Murray, Wyatte C Hall & Kristin Snoddon

Medical and educational interventions for children with hearing loss often adopt a single approach of spoken language acquisition through the use of technology, such as cochlear implants. These approaches generally ignore signed languages, despite no guarantees that the child will acquire fluency in a spoken language. Research with children who have a cochlear implant and do not use a signed language indicates that language outcomes are very variable and generally worse than their non-deaf peers. In contrast, signing children with cochlear implants have timely language development similar to their non-deaf peers that also exceeds their non-signing peers with cochlear implants. Natural signed languages have been shown to have the same neurocognitive benefits as natural spoken language while being fully accessible to deaf children. However, it is estimated less than 2% of the 34 million deaf children worldwide receive early childhood exposure to a signed language. Most deaf children are, therefore, at risk for language deprivation during the critical period of language acquisition in the first five years of life. Language deprivation has negative consequences for developmental domains, which rely on timely language acquisition. Beyond the adverse effects on a child’s education, language deprivation also affects deaf people’s mental and physical health and access to health care, among others. Therefore, policies in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities are needed. Such policies would ensure early intervention and education services include signed languages and bilingual programmes where the signed language is the language of instruction.