Position Statement on American Sign Language

“As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs . . .”

– George Veditz, Preservation of Sign Language, 1913

In 1880, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) was established by deaf leaders who believed in the right of the American deaf community to use sign language, to congregate on issues important to them, and to have its interests represented at the national level. These beliefs remain true to this day, with American Sign Language (ASL) as a core value.

The NAD reaffirms its position that acquisition of language from birth is a human right for every person, and that deaf infants and children should be given the opportunity to acquire and develop proficiency in ASL as early as possible. This position is also in line with the stance of the World Federation of the Deaf and the United Nations on human rights, including the recognition of sign languages.

ASL as a Language

ASL is the recognized sign language of the deaf community in the United States of America. As is the case with standardized spoken, written, and signed languages worldwide, ASL conforms to linguistic principles (e.g., semantics, syntax, morphology, phonology, and pragmatics). The complex visual-spatial linguistic structure of ASL is distinct from English, a linear, sequential language based on auditory processes.

As with other languages, native fluency in ASL is achieved through exposure and interaction early in life. Learning of ASL as an additional language can also begin at any time and continue over the course of a lifetime.

ASL and Early Development

The earliest years of a child’s life are the most critical for language acquisition, a time when the foundation is formed for cognitive and literacy development. Babies are born with the innate ability to acquire languages accessible to them and used by their families and care providers. Language competency is essential for cognitive, social, emotional, and psychological development. The NAD takes the position that as a fully accessible visual language, ASL should be made available to every deaf infant, in addition to any assistive technologies that may be used to take advantage of the deaf infant’s access to the language(s) used by their families and care providers.

The NAD supports maximizing language proficiency in deaf infants through the implementation of a dual language approach; that is, incorporating early acquisition and learning of ASL and English. Furthermore, the NAD is strongly committed to ensuring that parents of newly identified deaf infants and children receive accurate information about the benefits of acquiring and developing proficiency in both languages.

ASL in the Home and at School

Preparing deaf children to achieve optimal linguistic fluency in both ASL and English enables them to later engage in meaningful adult discourse as fully participating, contributing, and productive members of American society.

The NAD urges parents of deaf infants and children to learn about the benefits of the dual language approach (ASL and English) and the rich heritage of the American deaf community. The NAD also urges its affiliates and individual members to welcome deaf children and their families into the deaf community, to work with these families in becoming familiar with the lives and successes of deaf persons, to assist them in learning ASL, and to serve as a resource and source of support.

Educational programs serving deaf students nationwide are increasingly adopting a dual language approach to educating deaf children, based on similar linguistic principles and practices for other world languages which promote learning more than one language as early as feasible. Language and cultural competencies also contribute to healthy development of identity and self-esteem in deaf children, including fluid movement between the deaf and hearing communities.

Programs serving deaf infants and children and their families should provide ASL immersion opportunities for families of newly identified deaf infants and children. Specifically, the NAD takes the position that these programs should involve interaction and discourse with ASL-fluent members of the American deaf community, including parents of deaf children. Early intervention, pre-school, elementary and secondary education personnel should have the requisite ASL and English competencies.

The NAD reiterates its position that acquisition of language from birth is a human right for every person, and that deaf infants and children should be given the opportunity to acquire and develop proficiency in American Sign Language (ASL) as early as possible.

Approved January 2008 by the NAD Board of Directors.