Friday, February 15, 2008

2: Deafhood and Education

It's been noted that Deaf people often like to begin with the conclusion, then explain how they got there, a technique used also by Stephen King in the plotting of his book, The Gunslinger. So here, as a matter of experiment, I'll do the same and state this: In order for Deaf people to fully develop in the academic environment, and compete in the workforce, they need some knowledge of English - they don't need to necessarily be completely bilingual, any more than hearing people do, but they should have a reasonable mastery of the vocabulary of their career. How do we achieve this? The concept of Deafhood states that the greatest development of the individual comes when they reach praxis - or a perfect understanding of the relationship between themselves and the world. This, to me, means the Deaf child necessarily must be in a bilingual, bi-cultural cultural school in which numbers of Deaf students and staff are great enough that they be a visible minority, if not the majority - and that hearing children would also greatly benefit from such a linguistic setup.

How do I reach this conclusion? Partly it's intuitive understanding, but even I realize that such a statement's self-deception: all intuition is built of gained or metaphysical (what some might call quantum) knowledge. So either I have some knowledge or sixth sense of knowledge taking me to such a large and dangerous conclusion.

I'll choose knowledge, since what I know of all things metaphysical is earned and no gift. What knowledge do I have? I took several classes in French when I was a child, mainstreamed. In this class our textbooks exhorted us to practice in restaurants with real live French people! (Rather pointlessly, when you think about it: kids from the Italian section of Brooklyn, even in the '80's, were often too poor to do more than grab a bite at McDonald's, or pizza at Frankie's on 3rd Avenue; expensive French bistros were way out of range.) This knowledge was re-discovered years later in graduate school at Bristol, exploring the concepts of Deaf studies, then a new-born discipline delivered from the womb by Dr. Paddy Ladd. There I had the good fortune to take courses in bilingualism, and while comparing various texts it came to me that most "bilingual" texts which focused on Deaf people never discussed techniques for socialization with hearing children which involved both cultures learning the norms and language of the other, while bilingual texts which focused on two hearing cultures with divergent spoken languages always did. Only by fully studying and socializing in both languages could the student be master of both. Only study the new language - and the child remains hampered by its childish understanding of its own language, which is always the stepping stone used to understand the new. Only study its own language - and the child has not maximised its own potential.

So: an environment with students both Deaf and hearing, at least a sizable chunk of the population. But why also the school teachers and staff?

I personally would like if the answers were self-evident, but I understand if they aren't. First, there's evidence a faculty representative of its population often provides a model for that population in its intrapersonal interactions. That in itself is a big statement, so let's give an example: a school with hearing and Deaf children, with no Deaf staff, is not likely to educate children who a) have a healthy respect for Deaf (or hearing) people b) have an understanding of how adult hearing and Deaf people should relate each other c) develop the capacity to anticipate, understand and resolve situations involving both Deaf and hearing people, situations such as the famed "communication breakdowns;" d) become fully fluent at code-switching between both modalities.

That last is most important. I mean, I'm sure there's still some people obsessed with the whole "one language" method. "Oooh, let them be oral! Ooooh, let them learn only ASL!" These are fine, but seem limited to me. Frankly, I'd prefer my kids to know as many languages - spoken AND signed - as possible. More importantly, I'd prefer them to be flexible enough to work in environments containing either languages. That latter requires multiculturalism of sorts - and if the simple fact of establishing such a precedent is all that's required to create an environment with higher levels of language proficiency, why not? Wouldn't that solve the problem of the diminishing problem of Deaf schools, be a totally new attempt to resolve the language-learning issue, create a hearing contingent of the population with greater knowledge of Deaf people and Deaf culture, etcetera, etcetera? And what about the fact that 90% of Deaf children are often born to hearing families, creating a range of variation within each group which has great effects both on identity and language development?

But - does such a curriculum truly lead to bilingual individuals? And where does Deafhood come into it? How and what does the process of identity development of the Deaf person to do with education? I have ideas - ah, but that's yet another post...

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