The year 2020 is an auspicious year with several coinciding events. It is a United States Census year, a local and federal election year, and marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I am always struck by an aspect of the decennial census survey. Households of those who use American Sign Language are not counted. I am hearing but was raised in a home where ASL was our primary language. I believe the language question is framed in a biased way: “Does this person speak a language other than English at home?; What is this language?; How well does this person speak English (very well, well, not well, not at all)?”

The Census does collect data on various disabilities. In the last Census, 3.4 million people reported themselves as being deaf. As to why the Census Bureau does not collect data on ASL usage, the statement provided on their website as of Oct. 1, 2019, is: “The three questions used on the American Community Survey (ACS) to capture languages spoken and English-speaking ability are not designed to identify American Sign Language (ASL) users. The current question design supports the 1975 amendment to the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against specific language minorities when voting. The enforcement of the Voting Rights Act is focused on non-English, non-ASL languages that are used by members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Due to the way data are currently collected, we are not able to provide separate data about ASL use.”

It is a glaring omission to not document the intersection among ASL users of both deafness as a disability and as a distinct minority language and culture. Effective communication continues to be an unrealized aspect of the ADA. Without an accurate count, it affects states’ abilities to ensure they fully meet ADA standards. Only 38 states have dedicated statewide agencies to serve deaf communities. There is also a nationwide shortage of qualified sign language interpreters.

Why dismiss those already marginalized? Tell our state and federal representatives that everyone of every status matters and counts. We can do better!

Ronna Wertman


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