Who Uses Sign Language?

Deaf and Other Nonverbal Users of Sign Language

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Sign Language. Aitor Diago / Getty Images

It is not just deaf and hard of hearing children who use sign language. Another large segment of sign language users is hearing nonverbal children who are nonverbal due to conditions such as down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, trauma, and brain disorders or speech disorders. For parents, sign language provides a means of quick communication, particularly for those whose attention spans may be very short or language very limited.

Or it may be a tool for language development prior to developing spoken language. For children, it is a means of expressing themselves so that they are less frustrated.

Aphasia

Aphasia is a common speech disorder. It is a condition in which stroke or brain injury makes a person unable to speak. Sign language can be a communication aid for people with aphasia. Some resources:

  • "Sign language acquisition following left hemisphere damage and aphasia," an article from the of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, volume 12, issue number 1.
  • "Neural Basis of language and motor behavior: Perspectives from American Sign Language," an article from Aphasiology, vol. 6 number 3.
  • "Sign language and the brain: apes, apraxia, and aphasia," an article from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, volume 19, number4, Dec 1996.

Autism

Sign language is frequently used as a communication tool with children with autism.

An article on sign language on the Autism.org website encourages using Signed Exact English (SEE) with autistic children to promote speech development. 

Cerebral Palsy

Some hearing children with cerebral palsy may be unable to speak because the cerebral palsy means they cannot control the parts of the body needed in producing speech.

Sign language gives them an alternative means of communication.

Down Syndrome

The experiences of parents and children with Down Syndrome in using sign language varies. Some parents of children with Down Syndrome find that using sign language reduces the incentive for children to speak, ​as signing is easier for them. Others have found that using sign language encourages the development of speech in their children with Down Syndrome and that the children drop the signs as they learn to speak. Some books and articles about using sign language with children who have Downs:

  • Early Use of Total CommunicationParents' Perspectives on Using Sign Language with Young Children with Down Syndrome (book)
  • Perspectives in Education and Deafness published an article on the use of sign language with a hearing impaired child with Down Syndrome, "Yes, She Can! Language and a Student with Down Syndrome," in the January-February 1999 issue.
  • Exceptional Parent published the article "Signing for Success" in the December 2002 issue. In this article, a parent of a child with Down syndrome describes her child's language progress through sign language.
  • Sign language is frequently discussed by participants in down syndrome discussion lists. Examples are bit.listserv.down-syn and the Yahoo group down_syndrome.

    Updated October 12, 2006

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