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American Sign Language Interpreters in Public Schools: An Illusion of Inclusion that Perpetuates Language Deprivation

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Many deaf children have limited access to language, spoken or signed, during early childhood – which has damaging effects on many aspects of development. There has been a recent shift to consider deafness and language deprivation as separate but related conditions. As such, educational plans should differentiate between services related to deafness and services related to language deprivation.


Many deaf children attend mainstream public schools, and the primary service offered to students who use American Sign Language (ASL) is generally a sign language interpreter.


We argue that while sign language interpreters can be an effective accommodation for deafness (i.e., students who are deaf and not language-deprived), there is no reason to believe they are an effective accommodation for language deprivation (i.e., students who are deaf and language-deprived).


Using interpreters instead of appropriate educational supports may exacerbate symptoms of language deprivation by prolonging the period of time a child goes with limited access to language.

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  1. We recognize that the term inclusive is often used to describe an educational setting in which a disabled child is placed into the general education classroom. In recognition that such classrooms are not meaningfully inclusive for signing deaf children (e.g., Murray et al. 2018a, b), we use the term mainstreamed instead.

  2. Geers et al. (2017) made claims about the use of sign language that were wholly unfounded, and did not highlight what, in our view, was the most noteworthy finding from the study: the majority of deaf children did not successfully learn spoken language. See Hall et al. (2019) for an analysis.

  3. We use the term “language” inclusively, as it is generally understood by linguists, to refer to spoken languages and variants (e.g., English, Arabic, African American Vernacular English), and signed languages (e.g., ASL, British Sign Language, Kenyan Sign Language).

  4. We recognize that some people find the label deafness offensive, as it medicalizes a cultural identity In the absence of a better alternative, we use this term judiciously and narrowly as a clinical term to refer to audiological statuses.

  5. This is an oversimplification, of course. Deaf children without language deprivation often benefit from supports beyond access (e.g., literacy instruction designed for deaf children, guidance on strategies for adapting to a world predominantly designed by and for hearing people).

  6. For reference, there are currently 14,284 members of the national professional organization for sign language interpreters (RID 2018), and as we review in the following sections many educational interpreters may not be affiliated with this certifying body.


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Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute On Deafness And Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R21DC016104. Wyatte Hall was supported by the University of Rochester CTSA award number 3 UL1 TR002001-03S2 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. This work is also supported by National Science Foundation grants BCS 1625793 and 1918252 to Naomi Caselli.

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Caselli, N.K., Hall, W.C. & Henner, J. American Sign Language Interpreters in Public Schools: An Illusion of Inclusion that Perpetuates Language Deprivation. Matern Child Health J 24, 1323–1329 (2020).

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