Using Sign Language as AAC

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is a form of assistive technology (AT) that uses various devices and services to help individuals with disabilities communicate more effectively. Devices run from low-tech options (e.g., PECS) to high-tech options (e.g., advanced communication boards, iPads with dedicated apps). Services include therapy sessions on how to use AAC devices, as well as Sign language classes. For more information about AAC, visit the AAC page on this Website  and check out the links as well.

Sign Language Services

sign-language-1-1435456-639x961Sign language can be a great low-tech option for individuals who are non-verbal. Gesture and mime are common pre-linguistic tools used as speech and language are being developed. Services are similar to any AAC device, in which a qualified professional will conduct sessions to teach Sign language in a 1:1 or group format. Sign language services usually begins with teaching key nouns and verbs and then progressing deeper into phrases and grammar (just like learning any language). However, many professionals will modify signs, phrases and/or grammar to meet the skills of the individual. This should never happen.

sign-language-2-1435454-639x961The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) states that Sign language teaching needs “to happen [with] the inclusion of Deaf professionals in ASL instruction (for example, using ASLTA certified professionals to teach both special education professionals and students- and ensure that the ASL being used is linguistically appropriate, e.g. no made-up signs, or restricting the use to only a few signs” (personal correspondence, September 16, 2016). Restricting use of signs is to be expected at the beginning stages of teaching. No one can be expected to learn every sign in American Sign Language right from the start. What the NAD is referring to is when the curriculum is designed to only teach a limited subset of signs instead of teaching the full language. Furthermore, made-up signs are not signs; they are arbitrary gibberish that will only be understood in conversations that include the therapist/professional, family and individual being taught. Professional services that do not follow the NAD’s recommendations should be avoided at all costs, as anything but the recommended services do more harm than good.

What Can Be Done

If you are a parent looking for services or an organization that provides–or looking to provide–services, then you should seek individuals who are fluent in ASL and, preferably, have ASL teaching credentials. Good at-home resources are the Signing Naturally book series and the book Teach Yourself American Sign Language in 24 hours (both used in curriculum at the university level). Never settle for fake services that make up curriculum and call it “sign.”

The Deaf community has a long history of people creating and dictating their language and culture (Lane, 1984). This history has continued with professionals mocking Sign language with made-up signs and grammar. As parents and professionals, you can not only put an end to this historical trend, but also give individuals with disabilities the quality of services they truly need. If an individual does not possess the motor skills for ASL, then try a different AAC device. There are plenty of AAC options available to meet individual needs that you do not need to butcher a language in order to help someone with disabilities communicate. If the individual possesses the skills for ASL, then try it. It may provide the freedom and ability to communicate with the thousands of people (approximately 500,000 and counting) who use ASL and encourage more people to learn the language.

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