The World Health Organisation reports that there are currently 466 million people worldwide that have disabled hearing, with 34 million being children. This accounts for 5% of the world’s population and is a growing figure with estimates that, by 2050, the world could have 900 million people suffering hearing loss. But in the grand scheme of seven billion people worldwide, is this number sufficient to encourage educational systems and parents to consider teaching basic sign language to children?
Hearing loss can stem from genetics or infections, but it has been researched that 60% of childhood hearing loss is preventable. Around 1.1 billion people aged between 12 and 35 are at risk of hearing loss as a result of noise in ‘recreational settings.’
Although most draw on hearing aids and cochlear implants as means to tackle hearing loss, the social impact of being deaf or having some degree of hearing loss evokes feelings of isolation and results in one withdrawing from a mostly ‘hearing’ society. The mentioned methods usually cannot restore full hearing; some form of educational and social support is needed to ensure that those with hearing loss feel like they can play an active role in the ‘hearing’ world.
Many ask, “If we can prevent most hearing loss cases and there are medical methods to aid those who are deaf, then why should we develop and invest time into aiding the non-hearing world?” What this question fails to acknowledge is that the social and educational support developed can have widespread benefits for both those who are hearing and those who are not. We would be bridging the gap between the two worlds and draw those who feel isolated into active society; the benefits will be experienced by everyone.
Closed Captions: A Nuisance or Beneficial?
Subtitles have long been a debate.
Some people who are hearing find them distracting on a screen as the words take away from the viewing experience and could potentially ruin upcoming action. Others enjoy them as it provides a layer of reassurance if they can’t keep up with the video.
It has been noted how the inclusion of closed captions on YouTube videos has contributed to a longer viewing time of videos, which aids in performance in search engines and generates a higher profit for the content creator. What some fail to realise is that aiding what initially appears to be a small community of people in the world actually generates a large economic benefit. This is a mistake made time and time again.
For example, a Nielson report a few years ago found that, in the US, black women spent nearly nine times more money than their Caucasian counterparts on hair and beauty and yet, are continually underrepresented in makeup line foundation shades. This example shows how the inclusion of those who are assumed to be ‘smaller’ communities not only has a social impact in which we are moving in steps towards equal representation for all, but that it also has a positive economic impact. Although sad in many ways that a community needs to be commodified to be represented, it nonetheless provides a gateway to equal representation and acknowledgement of one another. We have to take advantage of all avenues.
Captions not only benefit non-hearing individuals where they can enjoy the same content as those hearing, but it also serves an educational purpose. Studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between watching videos with English closed captions and learning English as a foreign/second language. In a globalised world, being bilingual is a valued skill. It is noted that being bilingual could lead to earning 5-20% more money per hour than someone who is monolingual. In a technological age where children as young as toddlers hold tablets and smartphones to watch their favourite shows on YouTube to ease their tantrums, having closed captions can aid in a child growing up to be bilingual.
By simply adding closed captions to our video content, we not only include those who suffer from hearing loss and allow for them to enjoy their watching experience as much as hearing individuals, but we also see great benefits that closed captions can provide all around.
Sign Language: Bridging the Gap
Seeing the benefits of including subtitles into the video content we consume, why not incorporate at least basic sign language into a child’s upbringing and/or early education?
In February 2020, 18-year-old Jade Kilduff launched a petition calling for British schools to teach basic sign language. The petition saw 100,000 signatures.
The petition was inspired by her four-year-old brother who has cerebral palsy and was told he would not be able to communicate. Kilduff’s family began teaching him sign language and, after seeing its positive impact, the teenager launched the campaign. This shows that communication is not hindered by direct impacts on hearing, which makes the figures referenced at the beginning of this article smaller than what they truly could be.
Sky News spoke to Lyndhurst Primary School in Oldham, who signed to incorporate sign language into their curriculum. The benefits were overwhelmingly positive:
“We’ve got many children in here who have got autism and for the first time since introducing sign language, we’ve had them communicate with us for the first time. And you’ve got the quieter children who would quietly just say good morning in sign to each other. As a school, we are just all communicating better.”Education Communicator, Amy Scoltock
Incorporating sign language into schooling has many benefits for all children. Hilary Bowman-Smart, who works at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Paediatrics, notes that learning sign language further enhances the skills and cognitive benefits seen with learning a verbal second language. Learning sign language makes you both bilingual and bimodal and reaps the benefits of having better communication skills, the ability to recognise facial expressions and convey a language by two means (verbal and physical).
Sign language further allows for easier communication in very noisy settings or in settings where making noise would be inappropriate. Furthermore, having a grasp of sign language makes businesses more accessible and communicable, which can potentially generate higher profit.
Improving communication should be an aim for all of us and sign language is a mode of communication that reaches millions of people. There have been benefits seen with teaching infants sign language, as it allows them to communicate effectively with their parents when they are not at an age where they can speak. It can limit and control tantrums as parents can learn to understand their child and, in turn, calm them and give them the understanding they are craving.
Furthermore, given the requirement to wear face-covering as a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic, sign language would lead to better modes of communicating with people. Those suffering from hearing loss and difficulty in communicating with others have found this time particularly isolating as the face-covering inhibits any communication. By developing and teaching modes of communication that are physical, we would see the benefits right now amid the ongoing pandemic.
Deaf Culture: Enough with the ‘Quick-fix’ Methods
The benefits of the methods outlined would see an overall better experience for both those who suffer from hearing loss as well as those who do not, and would also be important means to bridge the gap between the hearing and non-hearing worlds rather than make the former more like the latter with cochlear implants.
Robert Sparrow, who works at Monash University at the Centre of for Human Bioethics, writes:
“Some members of the Deaf community do not view cochlear implants as a positive development for deaf children. Rather, they view the advent of cochlear implants as facilitating a form of cultural erasure or ethnocide.”
The misconceptions surrounding cochlear implants and the false belief that they can restore all hearing loss and see a return/improvement of oral communication shows the degree of ignorance we display towards the Deaf community. It is important that we understand the Deaf community and not attempt to erase them with quick-fix methods but to bridge the gap we find between us. The risk of isolation and loneliness from the social world is great for those who have degrees of hearing loss and the uniqueness of their life experiences generates a form of ‘subculture’ that we must respect.
The Deaf community holds strong claims that the emphasis on oral communication threatens their culture and life practices. By being more open to sign language, recognising its widespread benefits in a globalised world and educating ourselves on Deaf culture and the many ways we can communicate outside of the oral realm, we will be one step closer to a more understanding world.