Roberta J. Cordano of Gallaudet University: Why We Should Teach Everyone Sign Language From Birth
…America would become a model of belonging and inclusiveness for the world. The cost of missing the foundational language opportunities from birth is astronomical, especially for deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind children. It creates an uneven playing field from the beginning, limiting options for communication that has lifetime educational and economic consequences. Visual language and visual learning will change the world by greatly reducing the disconnection and lack of language exposure a monolingual society places on all of its children and on millions of deaf and hard of hearing people. All Americans, from the baby born deaf to the grandparent becoming hard of hearing, would still be able to communicate with their loved ones. Sign language for all babies would also provide a much-needed boost to our education system, helping to remedy many inter-related social inequities for all children, and especially deaf and hard of hearing people. At Gallaudet, we have advanced AI technology, including an avatar that can detect when a baby’s brain is able to acquire language and interact with babies to expose them to language, and we have the digital, motion expertise to capture and document sign languages and gestures.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roberta J. Cordano.
Roberta J. “Bobbi” Cordano is the 11th president of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She is the fourth deaf president, and the first deaf female president, in the university’s history. In office since January 1, 2016, Cordano has brought new energy and transformational leadership to the role, leading strategic planning, academic innovation, and new approaches to higher education service and delivery. She has prioritized language vibrancy and highlighted Gallaudet’s unique economic contribution to the vast sign language economy. She is committed to creating economic and leadership opportunities for deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind individuals. As Gallaudet navigates the novel coronavirus pandemic, she has committed to bilingual learning through digital means. She also is deeply committed to leading the university’s multidimensional anti-racism initiative.
A seasoned, proven administrator and leader, Cordano brings to her presidency skills and experience built in both traditional and non-traditional settings. She was previously vice president of programs for the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota. She also held leadership roles in the healthcare industry, with Allina Health, the Park Nicollet Institute, and Park Nicollet Health Services. Earlier in her career, she was an educational administrator at the University of Minnesota and an assistant attorney general for the State of Minnesota. She was a founder of two charter schools for deaf and hard of hearing children in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
A 1987 graduate of Beloit College, Cordano received her Juris Doctor degree in 1990 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is fluent in American Sign Language and English.
Thank you so much for joining us Roberta! Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Early in my legal career I was hospitalized for a medical emergency. This led to a chance encounter with a physician on my team of care who was a fluent signer after becoming a father of a deaf child. He was thrilled to meet a deaf lawyer and I was thrilled to meet a doctor who could sign fluently! When he discharged me, he shared that he, his wife, and other parents were actively working with the deaf community and a few educators on establishing a charter school to teach with both American Sign Language (ASL) and English, following new research from Gallaudet University about the importance of visual learning for deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind children. He indicated that the board needed a deaf attorney and invited a conversation to discuss this after I had recovered. My life has never been the same since.
Though I was a child of deaf parents who signed, I was sent to the public schools because I had residual hearing and everyone felt it important to see if I could succeed in the aural, spoken language environment in the public school system first. Learning through sign language at our local deaf school was a “last resort.” The result meant that never once in my entire educational experience did any teacher show interest in me showing my knowledge in ASL. ASL, like many other non-English languages that children use in their homes, is not valued or appreciated in nearly all of our school systems, public or private.
As I worked with this committed group of parents, community members and educators, it was an awakening where I realized what was missing for me. This was an opportunity to show our country and our educational system that we can have educational excellence through teaching in a visual language (ASL) and in an aural-based language (English). That was the commitment I made to myself and to future generations of children and learners — to build a school that would prove this. By our 7th year, Metro Deaf School’s diverse student body was performing at the top 25 percentile of deaf and hard of children in the nation.
The experience of founding Metro Deaf School catapulted me into an unexpected leadership role on the eve that the board was faced with the final decision to open the school. The board chair unexpectedly resigned that night before the motion was made and deliberated. That night, at the age of 29, I became a board chair and we voted to open the school with eight students. This experience pushed the boundaries of my knowledge, emotional capacity, and spiritual wisdom time and time again.
After nearly 10 years of building the pre-K-8 Metro Deaf School, I left that board to build a new high school, Minnesota North Star Academy, for the graduates of MDS, who were looking to continue their education bilingually. By the end of my service, I helped lead the merger of the two schools into one entity, Metro Deaf School. I served on the boards of both schools for about 16 years.
This experience allowed me to stay grounded in my identity as a deaf person fluent in sign language, while working in a world that knew little about my community and the challenges of living and working as a deaf person. Success required us to grow and learn together. This experience deeply influenced the leader I have become today.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
There are three primary principles that have served me well and continue to guide me in both life and career. I share these frequently with students and colleagues.
Always accept and embrace the road less traveled. This has been the story of my life and as Robert Frost says in his famous poem, it has made all the difference.
Patience and perseverance are cornerstones to experiencing success and joy. Helen Pence Williams, a close family friend we lovingly called “Aunt Penny,” encouraged me in one of my most difficult moments to remember the three Ps: patience, perseverance, and power, with power meaning the ability to positively support and influence others and experiencing personal strength and resolve.
Read, learn, and keep trying. My parents were wonderful role models of leadership and success. They taught me the importance of reading, the commitment to learning and growth and to reject the word “can’t.” There’s a wonderful ASL concept that conveys this simply: The sign “CAN’T” is made with the index finger of one hand pushing down the index finger of the other hand. Then, to convey the rejection of “CAN’T” from our vocabulary, we lift the same finger that pushed down the other one back up in defiance of the “CAN’T” sign. We always can do it.
My experience with my parents and their peers who graduated from Gallaudet and with the strong Deaf community in my hometown of Delavan, Wisconsin, supported a deep understanding that deaf people can do anything with sign language. They lived bilingual lives, thriving in a strong deaf community that was embedded in a larger hearing, English-dominant world. My mother, for example, was the first deaf woman in the United States, and likely the world, to become a chief medical technologist of a hospital laboratory, a pioneer in health care. My father was one of the winningest football coaches among residential schools for the deaf in the U.S. The collectivistic nature of our community was key to our rich sense of self and possibilities in the world. They were my teachers about the power of collective commitment in breaking down barriers and creating a better world for future generations.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
My big idea is straightforward — teach everyone, deaf or hearing, sign language from birth.
I am using “sign language” instead of American Sign Language as there are hundreds of sign languages and sign language dialects used throughout the world, including American Sign Language and Black Sign Language in the U.S., and protactile sign languages used by deafblind people. This idea is one that I hope to see not just in America, but worldwide.
As humans, we are wired to communicate with each other. The greatest challenge of losing one’s hearing, as many readers will attest, is the loss of connection to others by not being able to fully hear the spoken language being used. Hearing loss is a human condition that nearly everyone will experience in their lifetime — it is not limited to children who are born deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind.
My grandparents’ oldest child, my mother, lost her hearing from spinal meningitis at the age of 4. My grandparents were told not to sign with my mother. My grandfather began to lose his hearing later after the age of 50. For the last two decades of his life, he was functionally deaf. To communicate, my grandparents used a white board with each other. They also relied on writing to communicate fully with my mother. In contrast, two of my mother’s siblings learned basic sign language and were able to communicate with her throughout their lives. My grandmother often told me how she wished she and my grandfather learned to sign because it would have supported both of them as they aged and it would have deepened their ability to connect with my mother, with each other, and with our family.
After I started practicing law and working in different sectors in my career, I witnessed many examples of successful, hard-working people in their 50s and 60s becoming isolated from their families and friends, and some losing their jobs. Certainly, there are other factors in this competitive society that cause job losses at that time of life, yet, it is striking to see how adding hearing loss to the mix can become terminal for some in their employment, particularly if it is not acknowledged and addressed. Many people realize too late that hearing loss causes them to miss important information in meetings and creates misunderstandings. Many people who experience hearing loss start to withdraw from their friends and family and lose their sense of confidence. According to a Johns Hopkins study, people with mild to severe hearing losses are significantly more likely to experience early onset of dementia if there is no intervention (https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-hidden-risks-of-hearing-loss). I witnessed people losing their jobs and falling into despair. The costs to them and their families were way too high and unnecessary. This is preventable.
From a public health perspective, expanding sign language offerings for all children is the best protective measure against hearing loss over a lifetime. Baby sign language is wildly popular with parents in the U.S. because babies can communicate with their hands before they can speak. This allows them to communicate with their parents before they become fully agitated. Ironically though, while signing for babies has become increasingly popular and touted as a “must” for hearing babies, deaf babies are being denied access to sign language, often on the recommendation of medical and health professionals, leading to devastating lifetime consequences. Too often we focus on “fixing” the children who become deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind, forgetting that hearing loss is a human condition experienced by a much larger population.
I propose that we turn this around and see our children who are deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind as our teachers for how we can live lives where we are more connected and feel a sense of belonging with each other. If our country supports early access to sign language and English bilingualism, all children will experience lifetime benefits in their brain development, ranging from improved eye-tracking, complex thinking skills and improved reading skills. As importantly, we will prevent undiagnosed children with a range of hearing losses from experiencing critical language acquisition delays, which has a lifelong impact.
As people age and experience the normal course of hearing loss, they will not be cut off from their family, friends, and colleagues. Everyone would have a second language to depend on, allowing connection and communication to continue unabated, regardless of hearing status.
The benefits of American Sign Language are well-researched and known, including at our Visual Language and Visual Learning lab. More information on studies can be found on the VL2 website. In my conversations with some of our leading education and cognitive educational neuroscience researchers at Gallaudet University, they affirmed that languages acquired before age 5 create an early neurological imprint that lasts a lifetime. It is never “lost,” even if a person does not use that language throughout their lives until they are much older.
How do you think this will change the world?
America would become a model of belonging and inclusiveness for the world.
The cost of missing the foundational language opportunities from birth is astronomical, especially for deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind children. It creates an uneven playing field from the beginning, limiting options for communication that has lifetime educational and economic consequences. Visual language and visual learning will change the world by greatly reducing the disconnection and lack of language exposure a monolingual society places on all of its children and on millions of deaf and hard of hearing people. All Americans, from the baby born deaf to the grandparent becoming hard of hearing, would still be able to communicate with their loved ones. Sign language for all babies would also provide a much-needed boost to our education system, helping to remedy many inter-related social inequities for all children, and especially deaf and hard of hearing people. At Gallaudet, we have advanced AI technology, including an avatar that can detect when a baby’s brain is able to acquire language and interact with babies to expose them to language, and we have the digital, motion expertise to capture and document sign languages and gestures.
For most of my life many have assumed that deaf children must either learn to speak English or learn to sign. Our parents, educators, and communities struggled to reconcile the rhetoric, which was often feverish in its zeal that English and speaking English must be dominant and exclusively used. In the past two decades, with the emergence of scientific research about the amazing capacity of the brain, science has caught up to the lived experience of so many, including me, that having both, learning sign language, and English (both through reading, and if the child is interested and able, spoken English), is totally possible and, indeed, optimal. The popularity of baby sign language has also shattered and softened the rhetoric because it started to show the benefits of sign language for so many, especially parents who want to connect with their children before they are able to speak. Learning sign language has become a biological imperative because of the natural developmental milestones of the human body and brain.
We must take this further and make it a biological, neurological, social, and public health imperative. America would establish a fail-safe or to use another metaphor, guard rails, to assure the success of every child by assuring that all of our babies will have immediate access to visual language from birth guaranteeing a lifetime of learning, growth, and social, developmental, and economic success. For those who are born or later become deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind, they will be already equipped with a second language to tap.
Everyone’s world gets bigger, not smaller.
The key drawback is the potential for appropriation by the hearing community and a loss of ownership of sign language by deaf people who are the primary producers and linguistic masters of sign languages. We see this currently, where signing is promoted for hearing babies and discouraged for deaf babies. In the United States, ASL is taught in high schools and colleges across the country in rapidly increasing numbers, and yet many deaf students in those same schools have not had the opportunity to learn ASL throughout their life. This is unacceptable, counterintuitive, and frankly mind-boggling.
Deaf people created sign language and are the heart and soul of this “big idea.” As sign language is taught to everyone, it should never be at the expense of deaf people. Deaf people are the guardians of sign languages and they must be the teachers and center of this initiative to teach sign language to everyone. Holding this value means that deaf people will have employment opportunities and wealth creation is possible based on recognizing the value we create for the world.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
Yes. I always did very well in school. I often wondered: what does it take to be successful in school? I realized that it was my foundation of language that I got from my parents. Both of my parents are deaf so I was raised with American Sign Language in the home from birth. Additionally, we had 14 different publications coming to my house on a regular basis on a wide variety of subjects and from a variety of viewpoints. We were always, always reading. So much of my success came from the dual foundation my family provided me — American Sign Language and English through reading.
When I was a junior in high school, I gave an extemporaneous speech in a Forensics competition on the history of American Sign Language. I opened my presentation with a poem, signing it in ASL. As I signed it, there was no voicing, only silence and the beauty of the visual language. When I was done, I did it again, this time in both sign language and then used my voice so the audience could connect with what I was signing. All the judges were hearing. There were no interpreters. I won the state championship. It was a formative moment in my life, showing the power of a bilingual approach to address language inequities. It was the first point that I felt my life was “integrated” and “whole” in showing my full self. It revealed to me the beauty of sharing knowledge and storytelling using both languages. I felt tremendous personal achievement when I won the state championship.
When I had the opportunity to join the community to build a bilingual charter school, this was one of the memories that drove my efforts. The memory reminds me that deaf people have value, that sign language has value, that communication and connection can be achieved through both languages — and that has value. We just need to realize that value and the big idea is a step in this direction.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
We need enlightened individuals or organizations, difference-makers, who truly want to implement sign language to improve the human condition for everyone in our country and the world. And, in doing so, understand deeply that this will also begin to equalize the playing field for all children, especially those who experience disparities in access to language.
We also need a general American shift that recognizes, accepts, and supports the fact that access to language and communication is a fundamental human right, it is central to life and liberty, and it comes in many forms and dimensions. Spoken language is not the only language privileged in the human brain. Sign languages are also equally privileged in the brain. Science has proved this.
Ideally, I would like to work with federal, corporate, foundation, and nonprofit leaders to establish a commission of experts to study and implement this idea at the national level. This idea will take policy change and some redesigning of health care benefits to include language acquisition necessary for brain development, school and education systems to support children and families after the age of 3, and public health systems to build the equivalent success we saw with implementing seat belts for public safety and health. Governors and legislatures nationwide would also need to be involved and support this at the state level.
Gallaudet has several programs that could assist with this idea. The Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center is our birth-21 program. In addition to running two schools, they also operate a national mission program which provides resources to educators and families across the country. They are tasked with developing and disseminating innovative curricula, instructional techniques, and products nationwide while providing information, training, and technical assistance for parents and professionals to meet the needs of deaf and hard of hearing students.
Additionally, our Motion Light Lab is working on many exciting and innovative ways to enhance literacy and make ASL learning accessible and fun. For example, they have created many storybook apps that tell stories in ASL and English, giving children (and adults!) the opportunity to explore and learn in both languages. We also have ASL Connect, an online learning platform that teaches ASL and Deaf Studies.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Mistakes are important milestones of learning. I deeply appreciate the emerging science around learning, especially about developmental mindsets versus fixed mindsets (Dweck, C.S., 2006, Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House). I wish that while I was in school more emphasis was placed on making and taking time for myself and with others in our teams in school to “getting it right” rather than doing it in the “right” way. Until I had my Rhetoric professor in college, I used to think of writing as something I had to “get right,” rather than a process that is best when we savor our thinking and ideas over time. In that class she taught us the skill of taking time with an idea for as long as a week, to develop, edit, and refine our thinking starting with a 10-word sentence and ending in a final essay of 100 words a week later. So often writing is a challenge because so many people have different notions of good writing, so we get into a trap of seeking a goal of perfection that is really not attainable and we end up being blocked in expressing ourselves.
Life and success are not linear paths. I’ve learned that the greatest opportunities come when I’m willing to deviate from what I have thought or was convinced were the “right paths” to success. At the age of 13, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer to address discrimination in the world and to fight against inequality, especially against deaf people. At 17, after our family hosted an AFS exchange student, I decided I wanted to experience living in another country, too. I initially feared it would take me off the path to becoming a lawyer, but decided the experience would be more important. I listed my top three choices for countries to go to, but then got sent to a country I knew almost nothing about: South Africa. Little did I know how transformative that experience would be in advancing my understanding of racism, and the detrimental impact of systemic and legal hierarchies of value attributed to people based on race and other identities. It also helped inform my experience as a deaf woman who identifies as LGBTQIA person and how deaf people and other identities are also placed in a hierarchy of value in various countries, our nation, and often in our own communities.
Find your teachers and let the rest take care of itself. I often advise students to worry less about the best major to pick in college, and focus more on finding and following the teachers that inspire them and nudge them to grow. Staying present in what we feel inspired to learn will guide our journey. When I was accepted in college, I planned to major in economics and government on the assumption that they would prepare me well for law school. In my first semester, I took a sociology class and fell in love with it and with the manner in which the class was taught by the professor. I immediately began to fear that if I kept taking classes from this teacher and pursue my interest in sociology, I would not get into law school. On the advice of my parents, I sought out our pre-law advisor (another teacher on my path). He was unequivocal with me: study what is most interesting to you and do well with your grades. I ended up taking classes from my favorite sociology professor throughout college and majoring in sociology. Years later, I realized that for four years this professor and I carried on a conversation through my papers and through his comments in the margins. It was a true gift of learning and growth. Ironically, I ended up being accepted into the University of Wisconsin, which had the best law curriculum focused on sociology and the law.
You are perfect in exactly how you are. This may seem trite to some, but when you are born with or later acquire a condition identified as a “disability” by health professionals, you (and your parents and family) are suddenly bombarded with messages that something is “wrong” with you that has to be “fixed” or “cured.” I remember vividly the feeling of growing up until the age of 6, experiencing the world as a wonderful place and where I belonged. I had full access to sign language and was able to use residual hearing to pick up some speech but notably without anyone correcting it because my parents and my older sister were deaf. I thought I was moving through the world normally, until Kindergarten, when the teacher notified my parents that my hearing should be checked. I got my first hearing test. That moment changed my life. I was no longer “perfect.” I was now a person who needed to be “fixed.” It took years for me to realize the impact of that moment in my life. Imagine how many babies are born, hugged by their parents, and welcomed with such joy. Then a day or so later, after being given and not passing a hearing screening test, when next being held, suddenly experiencing tears flowing in the eyes of parents and others; the energy of deep grief and confusion setting in. Looks change, and in some cases, parents hold the child less and less as they grieve. We need to transform that experience to see children as they are born or later change, to be seen as bringing a diversity of experience and life that has value and purpose in the world — no matter how challenging that experience may be for everyone. As disability rights advocates have maintained, we are not disabled by our physical, sensory or intellectual abilities, but rather by the structures, attitudes, policies, and practices in our communities, including our healthcare system.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Commit to service and volunteerism. We too often subscribe to the idea that learning is an individual act. I believe that learning, at its best, is in community with each other. Learning is a community act. Service is not only about citizenship, democracy, and influencing the quality of life through our efforts; volunteering in service of a cause greater than oneself provides critical experiences that force deep personal and professional growth. For me, it has guided me to make different decisions about my career choices as well. Accepting invitations to opportunities because they build on my experiences, rather than prescribed paths that traditionally define “success,” has made a difference. This reaffirms wonderful advice from a women’s leadership conference that I attended years ago: “build a life, not a resume.”
Engage in hobbies or vocations that challenge you outside of work to let your mind, body, and spirit work differently. I derive great pleasure from tackling challenging puzzles, word games, card games, and board games. I enjoy them by myself as well as with others. The joy and fun of seeing patterns and putting pieces together in puzzling, especially with 3,000+ puzzle pieces, and the sheer fun of both cooperative and competitive games positively shift my energy and renew my spirit.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Gallaudet University, in the past 157 years, and the deaf community have built a sign language ecosystem and economy worth $2–3 billion — a powerful engine driving regional and national economies and innovation throughout the country. This is a rare true value-add to our economy where opportunities do not “take” or threaten anything from our main economy to grow. This signing economy is nowhere near mature. There are still tremendous economic growth opportunities in nearly every aspect of this economy.
I say to VCs: invest in deaf people. Deaf people by our nature of navigating a world not built for us are powerful innovators- we adapt daily. The ideas and creations of the deaf community are only beginning to be tapped and there is incredible investment potential in the entrepreneurship of the deaf community. Deaf-owned and operated businesses like Mozzeria, a pizzeria first in San Francisco, California, and now Washington, DC, are thriving. One of the strengths of a business like Mozzeria is the unique experience they offer to customers. You can go to thousands of pizzerias around the country, but how many can you go to where all the employees sign? Major corporations like Apple, Chase Bank, and Starbucks have recognized the strength of the deaf consumer and have set up storefronts in Washington, D.C. that cater to the signing and deaf demographic.
This ecosystem is poised to grow and will only go up from here. Fifty to 100 years from now, everyone will sign so what are you waiting for?
Roberta J Cordano of Gallaudet University: Why We Should Teach Everyone Sign Language From Birth was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.