W(h)ither the Deaf Community? Population, Genetics, and the Future of Australian Sign Language

By Johnston, Trevor | American Annals of the Deaf, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

W(h)ither the Deaf Community? Population, Genetics, and the Future of Australian Sign Language


Johnston, Trevor, American Annals of the Deaf


ACCORDING ENROLLMENTS in schools for the deaf and data from the national ensus and neonatal hearing screening programs, the incidence of severe and profound childhood deafness in Australia is, and has been, less than commonly assumed. Factors implicated include improved medical care, mainstreaming, cochlear implants, and genetic science. Data for the United States, Britain, and other developed countries seem consistent with those Australia. Declining prevalence and incidence rates have immediate implications for sign-based education, teacher-of-the-deaf training programs, and educational interpreting. There are also serious consequences for research, documentation, and teaching regarding Australian Sign Language (Auslan), and for the future viability of Auslan. Prompt action is essential if a credible corpus of Auslan is to be collected as the basis for a valid and verifiable description of one of the few native sign languages in the world with significant attested historical depth.

Very few countries have good data extending over many decades on the number of people in their population who are deaf or hearing impaired. Differing definitions of hearing impairment and deafness and differing criteria for inclusion or exclusion from assessment also make what data is available difficult to compare from one point in time to another and from one country to another. The definition of hearing loss is a case in point. Some definitions include "mild" as a separate category, while others conflate it with "moderate." Also, some definitions apply different thresholds to the same category. For example, profound deafness may mean hearing loss at the 91 dB level or greater or it may mean 95 dB in the better ear. As I am concerned in the present article with the size and viability of the signing Deaf community from a linguistic point of view, one should remember that whatever definition is used, it is only children with an early and profound hearing loss, and many with an early severe hearing loss, who are likely to be life-long users of sign language. In many early sets of data, severity of loss is simply not mentioned, or is defined, instead, with a single general descriptor, such as "deaf and dumb." A related problem is a scarcity of studies of the signing Deaf community-for the purpose either of ascertaining numbers or establishing language use (primary or secondary).

It is important to remember that there are significant numbers of hearing people who are users of various community sign languages. Indeed, there are probably as many "native sign language users" who are hearing (having grown up using sign language with their deaf parents) as there are deaf native sign language users. However, for the purposes of the present article, which is primarily concerned with the implications for sign language research, these hearing users of sign languages have little relevance.

The Signing Deaf Community: Size and Incidence

Previous Estimates

In 1986, two estimates of the size of the signing Deaf community in Australia were published, both in The Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness (Van Cleve, 1987). One was based on the number of subscribers to the Victorian Deaf Society newsletter; this number was then extrapolated to Australia as a whole. The estimate was 9,000 to 9,500 deaf signers (Flynn, 1987). The second estimate was approximately 7,000 (Power, 1987). However, no explanation was given of how the second figure was obtained.

In 1989, I suggested that the figure was about 10,000 (Johnston, 1989a, 1989b). This number was based on the widely cited estimate in the professional and educational literature on deafness that approximately 1 person per 1,000 (0.1%) in developed countries was severely to profoundly deaf. This figure had received some support from a profile of the size of deaf populations around the world (Schein, 1987). However, I factored in the observation that many deaf people were educated orally, had successful assisted hearing, and did not use sign language. …

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