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Wyatte Hall Joins Congressional Briefing on Language Access for Deaf Children

Wyatte Hall, Ph.D., assistant professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), took part in a congressional briefing at the U.S. Capitol on February 22 to advocate for earlier and better language access for deaf children. The briefing was part of the eighth annual Education and Advocacy Summit hosted by the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf.  

Hall, who is also an assistant professor in Neurology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Pediatrics and the Center for Community Health & Prevention at URMC, has studied the prevalence and impact of language deprivation on deaf children and adults for almost 10 years. While most children share a common language with their parents and have access to that language from infancy, the majority of deaf children are born into hearing families that use spoken language and many have delayed access to language. 

Language – whether spoken or signed – is like sustenance for the brain. Without it, children can experience cognitive and developmental delays, as well as worse physical health, long-term academic achievement, and mental health issues throughout life.

Getting access to language late is really bad for a child’s development, health, and quality of life across the lifespan,” said Hall. “The fact that many deaf children in the U.S. have delayed access to language is a national public health emergency.”

Hall and his collaborators, Naomi Caselli, Ph.D., assistant professor of Deaf Studies at Boston University, and Michele Berke, Ph.D., early childhood education principal at the California School for the Deaf, know that there is hope for deaf children born into hearing families. In a recent study, they found that such children who had access to an immersive American Sign Language (ASL)-English bilingual environment by age three attained age-appropriate academic achievement regardless of their parents’ signing abilities. They also found that children who entered the program later had significantly lower scores in all academic subjects on average, and children with stronger ASL skills tended to have better academic achievement scores.

That is why they argued in front of congressional staffers, alongside others from the Education and Advocacy Summit, that early education in an ASL bilingual school is crucial to ensuring deaf children achieve expected academic outcomes and a foundation for a healthy life. They called on congress to fund bilingual schools, and to increase funding for research on ASL, deaf health, and deaf education through the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and to earmark funds in the CDC Early Hearing Detection and Intervention program’s budget for ASL programs, deaf mentors, and immersion programs. They also emphasized that ASL should be an “and” option for deaf children alongside English, allaying misconceptions that learning ASL could impede English language development.

“I’m honored to be a part of this briefing and to share my research with policymakers,” Hall said. “I hope this is an ongoing step toward positive change, so future generations of deaf and hard-of-hearing kids have more equitable access to language, improved education, better health, and overall higher quality of life throughout their lifetimes.”

Hall was the first graduate of the Rochester Postdoc Partnership, a unique postdoctoral training program designed to advance the research and academic careers of Deaf and hard of hearing (Deaf/HH) scientists. While in the program, he explored the relationship between early childhood language experiences and subsequent life outcomes of Deaf people. He performed qualitative work with local deaf Rochester community members, co-edited the first-ever academic text focusing on the role of language deprivation in the deaf mental health field, and developed the Deaf Childhood Experiences Questionnaire.

He currently is director of the Visual Language Access and Acquisition Lab at URMC and co-directs the Future Deaf Scientists program under the Wilmot Cancer Institute, a cancer research education and training program seeking to empower Deaf high school students to thrive in medical and science careers.