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American Sign Language in the Special Needs Community:

By: Claire Roen

May 21st, 2021


In the special needs community, communication barriers are a constant issue for children and families. For many disabled people this is addressed in the form of speech therapy and physical therapies in order to improve oral communication. However, some people with special needs are unable to communicate orally, generating an even more difficult barrier. In an attempt to close the gap between neurotypical and disabled people, the use of sign language could create a new communication pathway allowing disabled people to further express their needs and desires as well as increase the level of connection and community between disabled and non-disabled individuals.

When analyzing the special needs community, a commonly used idea is the Social Model of Disability. Unlike the Medical Model, which regards disability as an illness in need of a cure, "[t]he social model of disability asserts that contingent social conditions rather than inherent biological limitations constrain individuals' abilities and create a disability category" (Stein, 2007). In the context of this model, it becomes the duty of society to provide every opportunity for inclusion of people with disabilities. In order to allow people with disabilities to communicate with the world, access to a language such as ASL is extremely important. In addition to this model, the idea of disability extends further than the affected individual. "It is not just the child who experiences the communication disability; the family, teachers, peers, and community are also handicapped without a language to use in communicating with the child. Sign language can empower non-Deaf children to triumph over their communication disabilities" (Toth, 2009). By providing a language for people with disabilities, society not only provides an opportunity for those individuals to overcome their obstacles but also promotes a sense of community that benefits anyone who interacts with a disabled person, and therefore, benefits society as a whole.

There are many studies that provide evidence that ASL is extremely beneficial for people with special needs. For example, "Sign language has been proven an effective strategy to support language acquisition for students with autism" (Carr, 2013). Because many people with autism are nonverbal, it is incredibly important for the wellbeing of these individuals to find ways to communicate with the world around them. Through sign language these people are given the opportunity to improve spoken communication and develop a second mode of expression. On top of this, "proficiency in the use of sign language may enhance children's ability to learn basic sight words. It is evident that the acquisition of sign language not only benefits hearing children, but children with learning disabilities as well" (Toth, 2009). Researchers have developed in depth methods to help children with disabilities learn to communicate. They use "a multi-sensory approach that incorporates hearing, writing, and seeing… [since] some children learn best when content is presented in several modalities" (Easterling, 2004). Because of the tactile style of sign language, it provides the perfect outlet for children to develop more unique communication skills. By utilizing a taclite language, society can provide opportunities for success for all students, regardless of learning style.

While spoken language is more commonly known, it is not a feasible skill for many individuals. "In a sign language system, words and concepts are expressed by gestures or signs and are combined with facial expressions, body movements, and/or fingerspelling… the ability to create images for words facilitates recall" (Toth, 2009). Because of this unique style, people who struggle with spoken language can practice and retain language skills through the use of sign language. "For some children sign language training produced a higher percentage of independent [requests] [and] vocalizations during training" (Tincani, 2004). While some people with disabilities may use ASL as their primary source of communication, others simply use it as an aid for developing better spoken language skills. Even in this context, ASL provides an extremely necessary experience that betters the life of people with disabilities. Even beyond language skills, ASL greatly benefits people with special needs. It "not only aids in decreasing the likelihood of challenging behaviors from occurring but also aids in increasing the individuals independence and assistance in them becoming successful members of society" (Pattison, 2016). This improves the lives of disabled people and those interacting with them.

Because of the unique style of ASL, people are able to adapt the language to fit their background and needs. In one study "each child individually adapted sign usage to support memory and retrieval" (Beecher, 2012). This diversity makes ASL even better equipped to support the special needs community. Another benefit of using ASL is the tactile nature of the language. Because many people with disabilities struggle with object permanence and articulating their needs, giving them access to physical representations of those things creates a better environment for success.

All in all, it is evident that sign language acquisition is beneficial for people with disabilities and those around them. By providing an opportunity for communication and connection, people with disabilities can actively participate in society, improving the quality of life for all.


                                                                                        Works Cited
Easterling, G. S. (2004, December 9). Effects of a constant time delay procedure and sign language instruction on sight word acquisition of elementary school children with learning disabilities. ProQuest.

Beecher, Larissa, and Amy Childre. "Increasing Literacy Skills for Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: Effects of Integrating Comprehensive Reading Instruction with Sign Language." Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, vol. 47, no. 4, 2012, pp. 487--501. JSTOR, Accessed 22 May 2021.


Tincani, Matt. "Comparing the Picture Exchange Communication System and Sign Language Training for Children With Autism." Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, vol. 19, no. 3, Aug. 2004, pp. 152--163, doi:10.1177/10883576040190030301.

Pattison AE, Robertson RE. Simultaneous Presentation of Speech and Sign Prompts to Increase MLU in Children With Intellectual Disability. Communication Disorders Quarterly. 2016;37(3):141-147. doi:10.1177/1525740115583633

Toth, Anne. "Bridge of Signs: Can Sign Language Empower Non-Deaf Children to Triumph over Their Communication Disabilities?" American Annals of the Deaf, vol. 154, no. 2, 2009, pp. 85--95. JSTOR, Accessed 23 June 2021.

Stein, Michael Ashley. "Disability Human Rights." California Law Review, vol. 95, no. 1, 2007, pp. 75--121. JSTOR, Accessed 26 June 2021.




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