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'Inclusion' Should Not Include Deaf Students

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What is wrong with mandated "full inclusion'' for all deaf children, and why must the continuum of alternative placements be maintained?

Sometimes it seems as though rhetoric and value judgments have taken over the so-called "regular-classroom movement'' to such an extent that a reasoned and informed consideration of the real needs of deaf children is obliterated.

For many inclusionists, the guiding tenet is the "normalization principle'' of making available to disabled persons conditions as close as possible to the norms and patterns of mainstream society. This position, which emanates from a relatively small and insular group that advocates primarily for children with severe intellectual disabilities, The Association of Severely Handicapped (TASH), presumes to speak for all disabled students. Their goals call for the abolition of special education as a means to: 1) enhance disabled students' social competence, and 2) effect changed attitudes in teachers and nondisabled students toward children with disabilities. It is noteworthy that social acceptance, and not academic realization, appears to be their primary measure of success.

Most would agree that full access to communication among peers is crucially important to the cognitive and social development of all children. But this process occurs in hugely different settings for deaf and hearing children. Face-to-face spoken communication is problematic for many deaf children, even after years of speech and lip-reading training. Most deaf children cannot and will not lip-read or speak effectively in regular classroom settings. This is a result of biology, which all the well-wishing in the world won't change. For these children, full access to communication--and therefore full cognitive and social development--includes the use of sign language. Thus, to equate the means of meeting the needs of deaf children to those of meeting the needs of developmentally disabled children is misguided.

Furthermore, research shows significant gains as measured by performance intelligence tests of deaf children who attend schools for the deaf--gains that are not found in deaf children who attend mainstreamed programs.

Those who espouse the "normalization principle'' as the rationale for full inclusion for all deaf children simply do not understand the role of the language and culture shared by most deaf persons. Contrary to the claims of those who champion "normalization,'' placement in a school setting that lacks appropriate communication with peers and adults creates an abnormal and impoverished milieu. It is naÃive to believe that public schools will develop an environment where everyone in the school--children, teachers, secretaries, school nurses, administrators, cafeteria workers--will be able to communicate directly and proficiently according to the learning styles and needs of all deaf children.

Those advocating mandatory inclusion often use the term "segregation'' when referring to special schools or classes indicated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In the United States, "segregation'' implies legally imposed isolation and has strong associations with the enslavement of Africans and its aftermath. As such, it carries a powerfully negative tone. "Segregation,'' as it occurs when some disabled children are placed in special classes or schools, may be negative or it may contribute to positive development. For this reason, the more neutral term "alternative setting'' better conveys the special educational placement. Using the term "segregation'' to describe alternative placements for deaf children is manipulative,in that it suggests values antithetical to professed ideals of equality and democracy. (According to the logic of full inclusionists, our historically black colleges should be closed.)

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides the basis for an argument by many that children with disabilities have a civil right to attend school in the general-education setting. Those who would mandate full inclusion ostensibly in order to safeguard a right are actually denying the right of others to attend school in alternative settings.

We must ask ourselves the real appeal of mandatory inclusion. Does it serve deaf people, or is it simply a way to further the great American myth that we're all created equal? To treat all children as though they are the same is not democracy; it is injustice.

The goal of many inclusionists is to enhance disabled students' social competencies in order to promote acceptance by their nondisabled peers. A leading advocate of the "full inclusion'' movement, TASH, is primarily concerned about children with severe intellectual disabilities. Social competence and acceptance may mean different things to different groups. In contrast to the situation for most mentally retarded children, it is possible for the majority of deaf children to form full, purposeful, intimate relationships with their peers, deaf or hearing, provided that they share a common means of communication. Deaf children neither want nor tolerate relationships that are patronizing, subordinating, or superficial. Notwithstanding the honorable intentions of full-inclusion advocates, gestures of benevolence by persons who neither possess the requisite communication skills nor desire to communicate fully and effectively with deaf children are not acceptable to the majority of deaf children and their families.

The frequent response from full-inclusion advocates to questions related to the unique needs of deaf children is that speech or sign-language interpreters will be placed in classrooms. This position is simply not responsive to the research on early language acquisition in general and on deaf children in particular.

There is a dearth of both qualified educational interpreters throughout the United States, and research on the effectiveness of educational interpreters for meeting the emotional, social, and educational needs of deaf students. For example, does the student feel self-conscious with an interpreter sitting next to him or her? What proportion of spoken classroom interaction actually gets interpreted? How does the interpreter's presence affect interactions with classmates--sharing gossip, jokes, secrets? What impact does interpreter lag-time have on a deaf student's comprehension and achievement?

These and many related questions must be addressed before social policy affecting the education and development of deaf children is determined, lest irreparable harm be done. Simplistic solutions to complex problems are not helpful.

As far as profoundly deaf children are concerned, full-inclusion advocates have no grounded, informed theoretical framework to bolster their case. Their argument is based primarily on an image, not unlike the melting-pot theory, lacking legitimacy and credibility.

Deaf children are as diverse as any other group of children. Their different individual needs suggest that they will be best served by a variety of settings, including the opportunity to attend inclusive schools when appropriate. But the full-inclusion, one-size-fits-all approach, even with its promises of support services, is naÃive at best, and irreparably harmful at worst.

Complex problems do not have simple solutions, nor can an emotionally based appeal to old myths substitute for an informed appreciation of the culture of deafness.

Oscar Cohen is the executive director of the Lexington School for the Deaf in Jackson Heights, N.Y.

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