By Alison Tedford – 10 million people on Facebook watched the story of a Deaf girl named Ayla. The videos made by Jessica Sergeant went viral for all the right reasons. It was an important story that needed to be told about how the lives of Deaf children can be changed through early access to sign language. I knew I had to interview Jessica about this amazing story and her work as an advocate for Deaf people. This was our conversation:
Alison: I watched the vlog you sent and I wanted to ask – what does language deprivation mean to you and what are some of the consequences you’ve seen when children don’t have timely access to language?
Jessica: It basically means lack of linguistic input during the critical 0-5 years of a Deaf child’s life. The Deaf child isn’t acquiring language typical for their age. This in turn could have a lifelong linguistic, socialization, cognitive and psychological negative impact on the child.
I have personal experience with it. For the first 11 years of my life, I did not have access to American Sign Language (ASL). I was identified as significantly language delayed at age 6 and this continued for 5 more years until I had access to ASL.
Without full and unimpeded access to language, I did not have access to the world. Language is an essential foundation to comprehend what is going on. Because I was delayed in language, I could not communicate my thoughts, wants and needs as well interact effectively with people. It also impacted my mental and emotional well-being and stunted my reading skills. Additionally, it limited my knowledge of the real world.
Each Deaf person who was language-deprived has a different impact and their experiences are different than mine. The common thread is lifelong linguistic, socialization, cognitive and psychological negative impact.
Read more about this issue in this World Federation Of The Deaf position paper.
Alison: What do people most often misunderstand about Deafness?
Jessica: Mostly that our capabilities are underestimated. It is assumed that because we cannot hear and/or speak, we cannot do anything else. This is simply untrue. As long as Deaf people have access to sign language, they will reach their full human potential and it’s best having full access to sign language from birth.
Another is on stories of Deaf people where stories directly told by Deaf people themselves are rarely heard. This means hearing people often are telling stories on their behalf that are largely inaccurate, and doesn’t tell the full story or negatively portrays them. This means the general public are not receiving authentic stories about Deaf people.
Alison: What are you most proud of in your role as an activist for language access?
Jessica: To date, I’m proud of 3 things…
1) My “Deaf Children Should Be Exposed To Sign Language” video garnering nearly 9 million views.
2) Mark Gerretsen, Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Island, declaring Sign Languages as equal to Spoken Languages in the House of Commons on September 24, 2018.
3) Advocating for the recognition of ASL, LSQ and ISL as the primary languages of Deaf people in Canada. This essentially joined Canada in the growing list of 45+ countries worldwide that have legally recognized its national sign language(s) by its governments.
Alison: How can everyday people support better access?
Jessica: This starts by changing the mindset of what Deaf people can do and treating them as equals. Listening to what they have to say and taking them to heart. If there is a Deaf baby or child, immediately recognize that he/she is a cultural and linguistic minority who needs full access to sign language. No need for pitying as that’s a reactive thinking and does not do anything for the Deaf baby/child to acquire age-appropriate language. A more proactive approach would be to learn sign language, depending on what is the dominant sign language in the area. International Day of Sign Languages is September 23.
Alison: What made you decide to become an advocate and what have you found most challenging about it?
Jessica: I think it came to the point where I was tired of reading or being told stories about Deaf babies being denied sign language from birth because of an antiquated ideology where it’s thought that hearing and/or speaking is the “only” where to acquire language or to communicate when there is 300+ Sign Languages in existence worldwide.
Additionally, I was tired of reading or being told stories of how the medical profession tells parents not to sign with their Deaf child or that they are encouraged to choose between signing and speaking. This consequently leaves the Deaf child language deprived. My parents had wanted to enroll me into a school for the Deaf when I was soon entering kindergarten but because of “integration” policies, it was delayed for 7 years. This is 7 years of education in sign language I lost because of an ideology that does not fit for people like me.
There are 300+ Sign Languages worldwide and does benefit humanity enormously. It makes language and communication possible for everyone as well in situations where spoken language is not possible. For example, through windows, from a distance or in noisy situations. That is Deaf Gain. Deaf people largely contributed to the development of sign languages to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, because of cultural bias where it’s thought that not being able to hear and/or speak, sign languages are devalued.
This is an example of Deaf Gain. The football huddle was invented by a Deaf quarterback (click to play video).
I learned so much from Jessica about language access for the Deaf and I love her tenacity and dedication. She is an amazing person. You can follow her journey in advocacy on her Facebook page. As much as she’s already accomplished, there is sure to be more to come.
Interviewer’s note: You might have noticed that the word Deaf has been capitalized throughout – this was by design. Read more about why that choice was made here.
Lead Photo Credit: Emily LaFleur-Brewster