Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

How Many People Use ASL in the United States? Why Estimates Need Updating

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

How Many People Use ASL in the United States? Why Estimates Need Updating

Article excerpt

IN THE UNITED STATES, home language use surveys are now commonplace. The decennial census has included inquiries about home language use within immigrant households since 1890 and within all U.S. homes since 1970 (see U.S. Census Bureau 20023, hereafter cited as Measuring America). Public schools, originally to comply with the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, authorized in Title VII, Part A, of the Elementary and secondary Education Act, routinely collect home language use data for each student enrolled. The number of languages used in homes in the United States, as identified by the various federal and state surveys, is quite large. However, American Sign Language (ASL) is not on the list of non-English languages used in the home, and no state in the union counts its users in either the general or the school population.

Conspicuous by its absence in U.S. language census data is an estimate of how many people use American Sign Language in the United States. We have found that California records sign language use in the home when children enter school (e.g., California Department of Education 2004); the Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth (hereafter cited as Annual Survey) collects data on sign language use by family members with their deaf or hard of hearing children (e.g., see Mitchell and Karchmer 2005). However, there is no systematic and routine collection of data on sign language or ASL use in the general population. Given that estimates of the number of people who use ASL are relatively easy to find in research and practitioner publications, as well as scattered across the Internet, and range from 100,000 to 15,000,000, we decided to track down their sources.

In this review of the literature on the prevalence of ASL use in the United States, we identify a number of misunderstandings. To make sense of them, we focus on two documents in particular: first, a statement presented during the U.S. Senate hearings for the Bilingual Courts Act of 1974 about how sign language use ranks in comparison to other non-English languages in the United States (Beale 1974) and, second, the findings from the National Census of the Deaf Population (NCDP; see Schein and DeIkJr. 1974). This in-depth review clarifies the meaning of the original statement for the Bilingual Courts Act of 1974 hearings and provides a more justifiable estimate of the number of signers. This number does not necessarily include all ASL users, based upon the NCDP, which is the only research study from which data-based estimates may be derived.

Before we consider these earlier works, however, we offer some background on the problems of obtaining accurate (let alone current) estimates of how many people use ASL in the United States from large-scale, ongoing national data collection efforts. These include the decennial census of the U.S. population and its companion projects, the Current Population Survey (CPS) and the American Comsmunity Survey (ACS), as well as surveys commissioned by other federal agencies, in particular, the National Health Survey (NHS) and the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP).

Demography of Language and Deafness

We focus on two demographic research categories: (1) ASL as a language of national origin and (2) deafness. For more than a century, the federal government has mandated national census counts, or censusbased survey estimates, of non-English language use in the U.S. population. Also, originally as an activity of the U.S. Bureau of the Census and then, after a delay of several decades, a U.S. Public Health Service responsibility, there have been regular estimates of the prevalence of deafness and other disabilities in the country. In this section we review some of the specifics of these two demographic categories-language and deafness-and suggest that these distinct projects require a unified perspective before ASL use is likely to be included as part of the demographic description of the U. …

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