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Accessibility Matters for Communication and Education

Accessibility matters. A child and teacher communicate using sign language in a classroom.

If there’s one thing that most office workers and students have learned from working and learning remotely over the past year, it’s this: Accessibility matters.

But long before the coronavirus pandemic closed offices and forced school systems into virtual learning, Deaf, Blind and DeafBlind people were fighting to ensure equal access to information. While the internet and other digital platforms improve accessibility for these communities, notepads, printed books, direct mail and other paper products remain important communication tools. A wholly virtual environment can prevent access to information for people with limited hearing and vision.

According to the United Nations, “Even under normal circumstances, persons with disabilities — one billion people worldwide — are less likely to access health care, education, employment and to participate in the community. They are more likely to live in poverty, experience higher rates of violence, neglect and abuse, and are among the most marginalized in any crisis-affected community.”

Add to that the coronavirus pandemic, which has created greater isolation for many because of lockdowns and a shift toward digital and virtual communication. Accessibility matters now more than ever, particularly for the Deaf, Blind and DeafBlind communities.

Bridging the Gap For the Deaf Community

Paper has played an important role in preserving Deaf history and the history of American Sign Language (ASL). It also bridges the gap in communication between the Deaf and hearing communities. Using paper as a learning material and medium for written communication increases comprehension and information recall for all students, but without paper, consistent communication between Deaf and hearing individuals would be far more challenging.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is the father of the American School for the Deaf, the first permanent educational institution for the Deaf. His close relationship with the Cogswell family, whose daughter, Alice, inspired Gallaudet to communicate with her by drawing words and images in dirt, led him to recognize that Deaf men, women and children could learn through the written word instead of the spoken word.

After discovering the work of the Royal Institute for the Deaf in Paris, Gallaudet partnered with Laurent Clerc to establish what is now the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn. Clerc’s methods included manual communication — a predecessor to what we now call ASL. The school first welcomed students 204 years ago, on April 15, 1817, and led to the establishment of Gallaudet University in 1864. The school, which was the first college for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the United States, is located in Washington, D.C.

In the 20th century, Deaf students were often hired by the Washington Post as printers. A 2019 Washington Post column tells the story of Deaf printers at the Post. “Schools for the deaf encouraged students to work in certain fields,” said Steve Moore, who worked at the Post from 1968 to 2001. “Printing went to the more advanced students.”

The Cogswell Heritage House holds volumes of documentation and artifacts from the Cogswell family, Gallaudet and Clerc that help us understand how paper helped create greater accessibility for Deaf individuals. Artifacts include the oldest book on sign language in English (1644), numerous deaf education books from the 17th–19th centuries, historical documents about the establishment of the American School for the Deaf and the complete collection of the American Annals of the Deaf (1847-present), the oldest peer-reviewed professional journal devoted to the quality education of and services for the Deaf.

ASL Accessibility Matters

ASL started as Signed English, which relied on Signed French as a base language. Signed English was used for teaching at the American School for the Deaf and Gallaudet University, but by 1835, it had evolved into ASL, which became the main language used in deaf schools. ASL has a unique syntax that differs from Signed English.

Research into the 20th century led to the publication of Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf by William Stockoe in 1960. Stockoe’s research provided evidence that ASL was its own language rather than a derivative of spoken English.

ASL is now the fourth-most used language in the U.S., behind English, Spanish and Chinese. It’s also a popular foreign language program for hearing individuals. Increased interest in ASL can be attributed to greater awareness of the Deaf community and the need for accessible communication with the broader population. ASL interpreters play a critical role in sharing public information, and many secondary schools and colleges have incorporated ASL into their foreign language curricula over the past several years.

Accessibility matters, and you can help bridge the gap. If you are interested in improving your communication skills with the Deaf population, check out this handy, printable tip sheet from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which provides guidelines and ideas for respectfully and effectively communicating with Deaf people.

You can also teach yourself the ASL alphabet using a printable chart, such as this one from the American Society for Deaf Children, through printed books on ASL or through Gallaudet University’s free ASL lessons.

Braille Accessibility Matters to the Blind Community

Just as with the Deaf community, accessibility matters to the Blind and DeafBlind communities, as well as to people with limited vision. In a mostly online world, where images convey as much information as text and audio, people with limited vision often miss out on important news. That’s why braille literacy and touch-based learning opportunities, which often rely on paper, are so important.

Braille, a system of raised, or embossed, dots on paper or another surface, was developed by Louis Braille in the 19th century. Today, braille continues to play an important role in ensuring accessibility and literacy among Blind children, even with the advent of voice-to-text, text-to-voice, audiobooks and other assistive technologies for the Blind.

COVID-19 lockdowns have increased the need for information accessibility among those with limited vision. The United Nations World Braille Day site states, “For the visually impaired, life under lockdown has posed several issues in terms of independence and isolation, especially for people who rely on the use of touch to communicate their needs and access information. The pandemic has revealed how critically important it is to produce essential information in accessible formats, including in Braille and audible formats.”

While digital platforms and assistive technologies have contributed to greater accessibility, paper remains an important medium for communicating with, learning to communicate more effectively with and educating the Deaf, Blind, and DeafBlind communities. Accessibility matters.

Deaf History Month is recognized each year from March 13-April 15. The United Nations marks World Braille Day on January 4, aligning with the birthdate of Louis Braille.

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