CEDAR RAPIDS — An advocate for deaf and hard-of-hearing children said deaf children are facing language deprivation when they enter kindergarten.
“For deaf children, if you focus just on their listening and spoken language skills, they do not have full access to a natural language the way they do with sign, which is a visual language,” Julie Rems-Smario said Friday during an address at the 57th biennial Iowa Association of the Deaf conference in Cedar Rapids.
“There is an epidemic of deaf and hard-of-hearing children now growing up with language deprivation,” she said. “So they arrive to kindergarten, and they’re not ready for the academics because they don’t have a language foundation in order to succeed academically.”
American Sign Language, she said, “is not a subpar language or a second choice option. It is equivalent as a language. We want education to be in ASL and English.”
Rems-Smario is public relations director for LEAD-K, which stands for Language, Equality, Acquisition for Deaf Kids, a national organization that advocates for American Sign Language and for it being treated with the same respect as English.
LEAD-K, she said, also advocates for a milestone check-in every six months for deaf children in school, to see if they are improving in their language.
Rems-Smario also encouraged members of the deaf community to seek leadership positions.
“There are a lot of hearing folks who apply for directorship positions in different organizations that work with deaf people,” she said. “But we need to get more deaf leaders applying for those positions because they know our story, they’ve experienced the challenges and barriers and working through that.”
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Bob Vizzini, a lecturer at the University of Iowa and chairman of this week’s conference at the Marriott Hotel in Cedar Rapids, said the conference, hosted by the Cedar Rapids Association of the Deaf, had “Reflect, Preserve, Empower” as its theme.
“We get together every two years, and we like to look back on our history to reflect on who we are as deaf people and what our language, culture and identity means to us,” he said.
Vizzini emphasized the importance of the deaf identity.
“We want to preserve our culture,” he said. “We don’t want it to go away. There is a cultural battle where people think that deafness is a deficit or a disability, and they feel bad for people who are deaf. But we are actually proud of our deafness — that is part of our identity. Sign language is beautiful. It’s a right that we have, and we can contribute to society just like anybody who has normal hearing.”
The Iowa Association of the Deaf was established in 1881. Its purpose is to help deaf people in the state “with anything related to jobs, education, their daily lives,” said Kathy Miller, president of the association. “The conferences allow us to have business meetings, to discuss some of the different issues we want to improve, and socialize with each other.”
“I am so inspired to see so many people coming together,” Vizzini said.
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