By Jean F. Andrews

National Summit at the University of Maryland ...
National Summit at the University of Maryland Speaks to Vital U.S. Language Needs (Photo credit: University of Maryland Press Releases)

Jim Cummins the bilingual scholar and writer makes a distinction between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). The reality for most deaf children (except those from deaf parents) is that they are learning BICS in sign and English. At the same time they are learning CALP in sign and English, that is how to sign complex, abstract information as well as how to read and write English. This just begins their frustration and struggle in finding environments both at home and at school where they have enough language exposure to fully acquire their languages in both BICS and CALP.


One tragic consequence of this derailed language learning journey  is that they stumble into adulthood with impoverished language proficiencies in both signing and in English which closes employment and higher education doors for them. And if deaf youth and adults  have interactions with police, jails and the courts, they are at high risk of not obtaining their Constitutional Rights because they do not have the ability nor the language abilities to understand what is going on around them. They do not understand the BICS or the CALP of the police or jail officers.

Contested Convictions - Police Interrogations
Contested Convictions – Police Interrogations

Oftentimes they will have enough BICS (social communication) to get by especially in routine, repetitive activities such as giving their name, address and birthday.  With their compliant head nods, and meager speech skills and writing skills they may give the appearance to police and jail officials they are understanding everything around them. What they have is BICS in spoken language, but they do not have the CALP language skills to cope with booking, classification, the medical interview or even understand the inmates’ handbook without the aid of a qualified sign language interpreter. Jail officials and police often overlook this fact because they are focused in only on the social speech and note writing the deaf person is capable of, in other words, the deaf person’s BICS or social communication.

Here is yet another example of the the increasing documented scenarios, that demonstrate how the police and jail officials do not understand the complex language and communication situation of deaf inmates.

Feds Probe Denver for Violating Deaf Prisoner Rights – from the Colorado Independent

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

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