Sunday, March 15, 2009

27: What do we want the future of Deaf schools to look like?

I think this is an important question which the Deaf community doesn't want to answer because such an answer would be extremely difficult. We complain about schools closing, but there is little proactive thought, based in historical analysis, on what would be a practical future for Deaf schools, and why.

First we have to admit that there is little doubt that the old model of Deaf school is not capable of surviving in the current environment. More importantly, I am not sure we want it to. There are many reasons, some of them to do with both of these factors. Financial reasons are one; there simply aren't the funds available to support two Deaf populations, and this country has made a decision, without Deaf people's involvement, that mainstreaming is the way to go. On a deeper level, we as a community have rejected the old formulation of Deafness as a functional disability, preferring to view it, at most, as a socio-cultural disability, choosing to believe follow the pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuing to accept funds based on the old formulation of Deaf people as disabled charity cases poisons this more hopeful formulation of the future.

But the rejection of such funding forces us to face a horrible truth: that there is a prevalent disability among Deaf people. This disability is called language deficiency. It poisons Deaf peoples' ability to communicate in any language, whether it be A.S.L. or English or Swahili. It is a disease caused by lack of coherent, organized exposure to language. (One has, after all, to be able to discern a system within language, to recognize it as language, in order to use it as language.)

One of the reasons, poorly articulated, why the Deaf community harbors a smoldering resentment against cochlear implants, is because those who work in the core of the Deaf community, are the ones who work most often with the victims of such a disability. Ranging from mild (difficulty comprehending organized language and producing coherent sentences) to severe (bordering on heavy aphasia), these victims often work with Certified Deaf Interpreters, social workers, case managers, and volunteers.

What does this have to do with cochlear implants? The answer comes from the aforementioned historical perspective. We came from such a linguistically deficient position. (Think: the wild boy of Aveyron.) Once population numbers rose enough to develop our own languages, a distinct grammar, structure, and tradition arose. (Look at what researchers are discovering today in villages and towns in Nicaragua, for example, and Israel.) The rise of manual education, education using signed languages, minimized this condition by ensuring Deaf children had exposure to a language. The subsequent success of Deaf people led to the development of oral education. Deaf people, obviously, could be intelligent. Perhaps if one simply prevented them from using signed languages, they would begin to speak. This led to a rise in language deficiency, and a subsequent return to manual education.

The pattern has continued throughout history; the cochlear implantation situation is the latest such iteration. I will not go into all the arguments for or against here. I think what has not been said is that, at minimum, the Deaf community can be said to desire a guarantee that the children involved will not face linguistic deprivation. Since there is no guarantee of a cochlear implant's effectiveness, the only way to ensure such a thing is to use a bilingual form of education. This is the only way we can guarantee a child will not suffer from this terrible disability. And teaching A.S.L. is the only way we can guarantee independence for the individual in case of device failure.

It is hard to explain this to hearing parents because they do not see the distinction, often, until it is too late, and they meet signing Deaf adults - sometimes the very adults who wind up helping take care of their child.

Deaf schools have been trying for such a form of education. Bi/Bi education is one result of such efforts. In my own research, I've criticized such attempts, comparing them with attempts by other cultures. Schools which teach French and Spanish, for example, involve students from both cultures. Shouldn't a successful model of bilingual education for Deaf students also involve students from the hearing "world," who use English as their primary language?

"But that's mainstreaming!" people gasp.

Except for the fact that we are still involving Deaf adults in the process - yes. A bilingual program only succeeds if it is bilingual at all levels. A mainstream school has no adult models for the Deaf child. In New York, a program called Hearing Education Services sends Deaf or signing adults to different programs with mainstreamed Deaf students. They see a Deaf adult once a month. The hearing students in the school never do, and learn and have no respect for the Deaf child's primary language and culture. (Meanwhile, they celebrate as many as they can think of, and conveniently ignore our stripe in the multicultural rainbow.)

Equally true is that a truly bilingual program requires commitment from all participants, which means Deaf adults in the program, as well as being skilled in A.S.L., must show and maintain their skill in the second language, whether it's English or Spanish or what have you. Just as we demand excellence from hearing staff, we all need to demand excellence from ourselves.

And having a population with students from both groups has many obvious advantages - not least that, by asking Deaf students to compete with hearing kids, we're telling them we believe they can. (In my school, which is slowly studying bilingualism and deciding what's best for our program, we still separate Deaf and hearing kids during state tests, because I.E.P.'s demand it. The Deaf kids are continually comparing themselves to the hearing kids, and often do as well if not better. I imagine the kind of subconscious psychological boost this offers is extremely powerful.) Deaf and hearing kids have role models for Deaf and hearing behavior and interaction.

But without dealing with that horrific disability - the disability which hearing parents cannot see - we cannot reach this stage, and we cannot begin to remake not only how we see ourselves, but how the world sees us. I hope this offering has given people some idea of how future Deaf schools might look. I intended only to give people some thoughts...

1 comment:

Der Sankt said...

you must vp char!

she is tan! YES!

And she is telling me all about kenya school system--i'm flabbergasted at how far behind we are!