Saturday, March 22, 2008

11: what is my dangerous idea?

The good folks at Edge in 2006 asked scientists all over the world to identify and write about their dangerous idea. This concept was turned into a book, which you can now purchase on Amazon, and being the product of scientists, is sometimes wildly insane, sometimes coolly prophetic.

So what is my dangerous idea? In the interests of progress for the Deaf community, I'll share it.

Imagine a school five years in the future. From the outside the school looks like any other.
On the inside, however, it's a technological marvel. Gleaming, wafer-thin silver screens cover the walls. These screens display videos, obviously made by children but with a certain level of sophistication which speaks more of commitment than skill. It's on these screens that you notice a difference, whether you are hearing or Deaf: for not only are these children signing, they are speaking, and though you may at first believe the signers Deaf and the speakers hearing, it will soon become clear that this is not necessarily the case.

Walking through the hallways reveals more differences. The communication methods in each classroom differ, although they always revolve around the two poles of English and American Sign Language. In some, the teacher signs than speaks; in another, she speaks, then uses an ASL interpreter; in a third, he speaks, but asks the interpreter to stop so he can use his limited ASL skills to express directly to the students the concept he is trying to explain.

Signs adorn the walls. "The goal is fluency in ASL and in English for all students. The road is what we are walking." Projects in ASL and English adorn the walls. Smaller television screens, protected behind plastic encasements, showcase video projects.

The future promises the Deaf community nothing but change. This is a difficult concept for both Deaf and hearing people to deal with. Deaf people get frustrated with change, because change is usually accompanied by the continual process of re-education. "Yes, I'm Deaf. No, I can't hear. Yes, I can read, drive, and dance. No, I don't miss music, tweeting birds, or the screaming wails of distempered infants." I do not believe we are necessarily disabled, but we do have something in common with the blind: we like to have our world ordered for ease of passage. (A friend pointed out that oppressed minorities often choose similar paths, preferring the ease of communities, even devalued, impoverished communities, than the continual struggle associated with the loneliness and stress of traditional forms of Success.) Hearing people dislike the concept of change associated with deaf people because perceive that group often as something to be protected, helped and served. Taken care of, like fragile china dolls; they Deaf people in closets and keep the door shut and because they look so nice, so clean, behind the golden locks, they let appearances deceive. When two such self-serving desires come together, the result is often disastrous. These artificial islands of existence come out. They look like safe places, but they are, equally, cages...

If we are to confirm that claim of ours that we are not disabled, we need to resist these seductive attempts to create these artificial worlds for us. We need to create coalitions. And the foundation for these coalitions is staring us in the face:
  • ASL, and bilingual education in general, has been proven to have beneficial effects on developing minds.
  • Deaf school populations are (for now) shrinking, but the schools and faculty need to be kept in place because history shows us that the Deaf population shrinks and grows with time, as new causes of deafness in the general human population appear or re-appear.
  • There is a huge national interest in learning ASL.
  • There are a large number of careers in television, media, education, science, etc. etc. which involve signed languages and Deaf people.
Put these four facts together, and what kind of future do you see for Deaf school environments? What is a reasonable solution for keeping open schools for Deaf children, filling these roles nationwide, utilizing the results of three decades of research into ASL, and preserving the heritage of the people?

Integrate the schools. But do it artificially. And do it in such a way that students are equal, that the languages of instruction have equality.

This is the 'dangerous' part of the idea, the one neither Deaf nor hearing people entirely like. This discomfort, however, encourages rather than discourages me. Bernice Johnson Reagon says again and again that coalition building is not going to work if you feel too safe. Her advice has always struck me as sound. Deaf people will have to give up the "safeness" of their spaces. Teachers and administrators may have to adjust to different standards and methods of instruction. Hearing parents might have to adjust to having their child in a boarding-school environment. But the potential results of having two living languages - in what would be essentially an artificial Martha's Vinyard - would be beneficial for the whole population of this dangerous idea. Alone, Deaf people do not see English as a living language, and embrace ASL with the fervor that musicians embrace notes. Alone, Hearing people do not see ASL as a living language, and preserve their misperception that it is somehow inferior to English. Together, they can develop mutual trust and respect for both cultures.

What are some practical applications of such a concept? Some other dangerous inferences?
  • Language fluency. It is almost a truism in concepts of Deaf education that all staff must be fluent in ASL. In this model, staff could be at various levels of ASL fluency, but must adhere to a universal model of instruction. To clarify: a hearing child with no ASL should be able to come to the school and see an adult at a similar stage of learning. A Deaf child with perfect ASL who needed work on English should be able to come to school and see a comparable model. Various in-between stages - which are much more numerous - should also be represented.
  • Environmental visibility of both languages. Resources and visible decorations involving both languages in all core subjects should be present.
  • Model should be to learn ASL/English for fluency, not "for Deaf people" or "for the Hearing world." This will be the quickest way to destroy a students' natural love of learning language. Excellence in both languages should be respected and recognized.
These are just some elements of my "dangerous idea." Perhaps it isn't really dangerous at all, just new. But I do seriously feel that if we as a community want to improve our lives we need to look to the future.

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