Bridge of Signs: Can Sign Language Empower Non-Deaf Children to Triumph over Their Communication Disabilities?

By Toth, Anne | American Annals of the Deaf, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Bridge of Signs: Can Sign Language Empower Non-Deaf Children to Triumph over Their Communication Disabilities?


Toth, Anne, American Annals of the Deaf


Toth is a clinical social worker whose practice in psychotherapy, education, and research promotes mental and social health for people who are Deaf and hearing. Toth's work on Bridge of Signs, was nominated as a finalist for the 2006 Stockholm Challenge.

This pilot research project examined the use of sign language as a communication bridge for non-Deaf children between the ages of 0-6 years who had been diagnosed with, or whose communication difficulties suggested, the presence of such disorders as Autism, Down Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), and/or learning disabilities. Teaching staff, speech language therapists, and parents noted that hearing children who used the Bridge of Signs model experienced language development with sign language and, in some cases, went on to use that foundation as a bridge to speaking the oral language of their caretakers. Though deaf children who used the model were more likely to have been exposed to sign language and its use, they still showed improvement in vocabulary acquisition and production. Future development and application of this model will benefit from quantitative and longitudinal study.

The purpose of this pilot research project was to examine the use of sign language as a communication tool for non-Deaf children, ages 0-6 years, who had been diagnosed with, or whose communication difficulties suggested, the presence of such disorders as Autism, Down Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), and/or learning disabilities. Recognizing that categories of disability may overlap and that, due to the ages of the children and the difficulty in accurately or completely diagnosing the presence or degree of disability, such clinical information may not be available, selection focused on the level of communication ability rather than solely on a specific diagnosed disability. For the purpose of this study, two sign languages (American Sign Language [ASL] and Langue des Signes Québécoise [LSQ]) and two spoken languages (English and French) were used.

While the use of sign language (Bryen & Joyce, 1986; Daniels, 2001; Konstantareas & Leibovitz, 1981) or the use of manual signs (Calloway, Myles, & Earles, 1999; Keen, 2003; Mirenda, 2001) has been documented for children afflicted with Autism and Down Syndrome, the application of signed communication with children who have FASD and learning disabilities has been less prevalent. With the assistance of professionals in the field, the Bridge of Signs researchers sought to develop and pilot a model program that would give children, as well as those who live and work with them, a means to build and receive meaningful communication through the use of sign language.

Awareness of how disability interferes with communication was brought into focus as the model engaged children, as well as those who teach and parent them, in building a bridge of signs to meaningful communication - including that produced by speech. Teaching staff, speech language therapists, and parents noted that hearing children who used the model continued and, in some cases, began their language development through sign language. In addition, some children showed increased spoken language production. Deaf children studied who had used the model in ASL/English or LSQ/French, though more likely to have been exposed to sign language and its use, still showed improvement in vocabulary acquisition and production.

Review of the Literature

A review of the literature identified issues and challenges this pilot project sought to address. Research has shown that a strong first language base will provide children and other languagelearners with an easier transition to learning a second language (Krashen & Terrell, 2000). Given that sign language is a language that both deaf and hearing children can be taught (Wilbur, 2000), and since Deaf children who use sign language as their first language are often more fluent vocalizing the respective spoken language than Deaf children who have learned sign language as a second language (GoldinMeadow & Mayberry 2001), the development of speech skills in nonverbal hearing children, through the teaching of sign language as a first language, offers unique possibilities. …

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