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Embracing Diversity in Communication

Communication is not just an exchange of ideas between two or more people. It is how we learn about each other. It is also a means of including people in or excluding people from a community. We are all aware of the difficulties we can face in communicating with hearing people. But what I want to talk about is the difficulties we encounter in the diverse Deaf community and how we can lessen these difficulties. As people, the desire to communicate effectively is universal. But when we are faced with an inability to communicate with someone within our own community, it can be frustrating.

Within the Deaf community, there are currently four primary methods of communication—American Sign Language, Manually Coded English, Cued Speech, and Oral/Auralism. Each of these modes has its benefits. I support the idea that being multimodal—knowing more than one of these methods—has advantages similar to being multilingual. For example, knowing more than one mode offers opportunities for learning from other people—both hearing and deaf—and for enriching our lives through a wider exchange of ideas, information, and the traditions valued in our diverse community. I speak from experience.

I grew up oral and cueing and later learned to sign. I am now able to communicate with hearing non-cuers and non-signers and with cuers who don’t sign and with signers who don’t cue or speak. I am also able to communicate with signers who can also cue, and we are able to converse with each other however we choose. Some of my friends are multimodal also, and that allows us to choose the most effective method of communication, which often involves combining the modes.

If we, as deaf people, are going to have success in communicating with each other as well as with hearing peers, we need to take advantage of all the resources that are available to us. However, for us, the issue of communication has unfortunately become political at times. I have encountered advocates, both deaf and hearing, who promote the use of the use of one particular mode of communication as best and sufficient for deaf people. I remember when I testified before the Maryland House of Delegates Ways and Means committee in 1993 in support of the creation of a task force committee to study the use of multiple methods within Maryland public schools. Some speakers staunchly advocated an ASL-only approach to deaf education, while others, including myself, promoted the inclusion of Cued Speech and oralism/auralism. There was clearly a division in our community.

Since 1993, I have seen more interest among deaf people in breaking down the communication barriers that confront us. For example, I have met some Deaf parents who recognize the benefits of having their children learn how to cue as well as sign. As a case in point, the Cued Speech program in Montgomery County, MD, has a growing number of deaf students from Deaf signing families. These students are bilingual (ASL and English) and multimodal (signing, cueing, and speaking). When I talk to these students, their communication abilities amaze me. Also, many of my friends who grew up with Cued Speech are now fluent in ASL as well and some friends who grew up signing can now cue fluently or are in the process of becoming fluent.

In short, I believe the four primary methods of communication in the Deaf community should be embraced as something positive and that having diversity in communication skills makes for richer experiences within the Deaf community. Rather than being divided by communication methods, I recommend that we come together as a community and support multimodal skills.

Author’s note:

Posted in the NAD Members Only Area on August 12, 2004
Reprinted with permission of the National Association of the Deaf (http://www.nad.org).
Reprinted in the National Cued Speech Association On Cue (2005, Issue 1).

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