Seeking an 'Appropriate Education' for the Deaf

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

David Martin, dean of Gallaudet University's college of education, can still recall the panic he felt as a young teacher in the 1960's when a deaf child was "mainstreamed" into his 6th-grade classroom.

"I didn't know what to do," he says, "so I just put her in the front row where she could lipread."

He has had many years and much experience to learn from since that first awkward venture into education for the deaf, and he sighs as he finishes the anecdote.

"Boy, I wish I had that one to do over again," he says.

But for every teacher who, like Mr. Martin, has schooled himself in the special needs of deaf children since passage of federal laws barring discrimination against the handicapped, there are others who remain stymied when forced to confront a child who cannot hear.

Yet each year since passage of the landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142, in 1975, an increasing number of deaf children have been "mainstreamed" from special schools into regular classrooms--a place where some thrive and others become more isolated than ever before.

"Academically, these kids may do all right," says Mervin D. Garretson, special assistant to the president of Gallaudet, the nation's only university for deaf students. "But they don't have any friends. They can't date, or play football."

This year, as a national commission examines the current status and future directions of education for the deaf, a debate that has raged in this country for 100 years flares anew: Is the best learning environment for deaf children one that distinguishes them from--or unites them with--their hearing peers?

Established last year by an act of Congress, the Commission on the Education of the Deaf has been meeting since the summer in an effort to develop a set of recommendations for changes in federal law that could improve the quality of education for the deaf. The group's final report is due by Feb. 4.

The commission has been addressing a number of critical issues in the field--from the severe shortage of teachers to the high percentage of deaf high-school seniors who read at a 4th-grade level.

But some of the most passionate debate outside the panel has been over the seemingly simple question of where and how to teach deaf students.

There are 1.2 million hearing-impaired people under the age of 18 in the United States, and between 77,000 and 90,000 are enrolled in public special-education programs. The precise breakdown of where and how all deaf students are being educated, however, is not known. And the commission, in one of its preliminary draft recommendations, has called for a better statistical system.

The migration of deaf children from special residential schools to integrated classrooms is indicated by the closing of many special schools and center-based day programs around the country.

This movement from special schools to neighborhood schools is not new. Nor has it been unique to the deaf among handicapped students.

The catalyst for all such activity was the passage of P.L. 94-142. That sweeping federal law emphasized providing an "appropriate education" to handicapped students in the "least restrictive" educational setting possible.

For the most part, advocates for the deaf contend, mainstream educators have construed the term "least restrictive" to mean education in the neighborhood school.

But while that approach has worked well for many handicapped students--including some who are deaf--it has also presented special problems for some deaf students, particularly those who were born deaf and have no training in speech or lipreading.

"For a child in a wheelchair, or with some other physical handicap, it's probably just a question of getting access to a classroom," notes4Muriel Strassler of the National Association of the Deaf. Children who are deaf, she says, need much, much more.

They may need, for example, a regular-classroom teacher who knows how to speak their language. And, according to most advocates for the deaf, they need interpreters--not only for classroom instruction, but also for extracurricular activities, lunch periods, and other times when they are thrown into contact with hearing children.

They may also benefit from having note-takers, particularly at the high-school level, and from speech training, special tutoring, and other services.

"There are some schools that provide an interpreter for a class or two and think they've done their job," says Donald Thompson, director of the comprehensive education resource center at the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville.

"There are no educational standards for interpreters in this state,'' he says, "and some barely sign."

Teachers of the deaf are even more scarce. A study conducted for the Gallaudet University college of education indicates that 500 new teachers of the deaf are needed this year in schools across the country, according to Mr. Martin.

Adds Mr. Thompson: "My greatest fear is that we will lose a generation of kids ... before the kinds of services they need are available."

Harlan Lane, professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, is one of many who advocate teaching the deaf in special schools. He offers stinging criticisms of mainstream special-education programs--a system he labels "deaf annihilation."

Mr. Lane points out that "9 out of 10 deaf children became deaf before they learned English."

"These kids sit in class and they haven't the least idea of what's going on," he says. "They're probably treated as badly as any minority children in America."

Even in big-city school systems, where they are less likely to be the only deaf students in the school, their feelings of isolation persist, other critics say.

Recalling his first experiences in the mainstream, as a freshman in a Chicago public high school, 23-year-old Mark Koterwski says that deaf students "were upset because they felt like the hearing students rejected them."

This, and the inability to "participate in sports or other activities" led him to choose Gallaudet when it8came time to select a college, he says.

Frank G. Bowe, chairman of the national commission, says he believes that "the central role played by the term 'appropriate education"' in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act has been overlooked by a large segment of educators, and by some parents.

"My opinion is that the oversight needs to be corrected," he says.

The commission attempted to make that correction this summer, by suggesting in a draft recommendation that special educators consider a broad range of factors when they meet to decide where to teach a deaf child.

The factors included: the severity of the hearing loss--the profoundly deaf may have a harder time fitting into an integrated classroom than those who are hard-of-hearing or become deaf in childhood; the child's academic level; and his communicative, social, emotional, and linguistic needs.

And the "appropriate" placement for a deaf child, the commission has held, is the setting that meets all those needs--regardless of whether it is a regular classroom, a center-based day program, or a special school.

"A controversy as large as this is, and as deep as it is, may overwhelm any discussions of appropriate education," says Mr. Bowe, who lost his hearing as a small child. "I'm doing what I can to bring the discussion back to 'appropriate' education, where it belongs."

Part of the depth and emotion of the controversy stems from forces in place long before the enactment of federal special-education laws.

One of these involves the emerging concept of a distinct culture of the deaf, with its own language, gestures, and values.

As the preferred idiom of most deaf people, American Sign Language, for example, has a grammar and syntax that is far different from spoken or signed English.

The evolution of this culture, experts note, has produced fierce pride in certain aspects of deafness. It has also produced, they say, a social hierarchy in some deaf communities--one that puts those born to deaf parents at the top of the order, along with those trained in sign language at special schools for the deaf.

Lower in the social pecking order are the hard-of-hearing and those who, like Mr. Koterwski, are products of mainstream education.

"When you meet another deaf person," says A. Donald Evans, author of Learning To Be Deaf and a professor of sociology at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., "one of the first questions is, 'Did you go to a school for the deaf?"'

"The translation is," he continues, "'Are you one of us?"'

In his controversial new book, Mr. Evans evokes some of the negative aspects of teaching the deaf in a special school. He asserts, for example, that some residential schools for the deaf may breed a certain "ethnocentrism" and a sense of naivete about "the real world."

"To them, the real world is a piece of cake," he says.

To illustrate the point, he relates a conversation he had with a deafel10lhigh-school senior and his friend, both of whom insisted that the 12th grader was rich enough to buy an expensive sportscar. The boy had amassed a total of only $168.22, Mr. Evans notes.

"The institution gives them language and, in a sociological way, the institution has a monopoly on the child's entire being," writes Mr. Evans, who is hard-of-hearing. He lived for four months in a residential school for the deaf while researching his book.

An example of the impact of such a school, he says, came in a conversation with girls at the school. When he asked them whether they wanted their children to be deaf or hearing, their immediate response was "deaf."

That sense of pride in community is also a factor in one further complexity in the learning debate: Determining the best form of communication to teach deaf children.

Should they learn the distinctly unique American Sign Language? Should they learn Signed English? Or should they learn to speak and read lips, so that they can more easily function in society and regular classrooms?

"You wouldn't go to Texas and force a Mexican-American to speak English," says Mr. Lane. "Why do the same thing to a deaf person?"

He advocates teaching deaf children a kind of "bilingualism" that includes American Sign Language, classes in deaf culture, and Signed English.

Though the argument's roots go back more than 100 years, when two central figures in the history of education for the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet, were debating the question, it persists in varying degrees today.

At the Tennessee School for the Deaf, for example, the school's policy of teaching in Signed English prompted a student protest last October.

The Commission on the Education of the Deaf has drawn its members from both sides of the issue.

It includes, for example, Dennis Gjerdingen, president of Massachusetts' Clarke School for the Deaf, a school founded in the 19th century by Alexander Graham Bell himself. The inventor was one of the foremost proponents of teaching the deaf to sign and read lips--to the exclusion of other modes of communication.

Other commission members use only sign language. The group's chairman, Mr. Bowe, both signs and speaks simultaneously.

Because the commission's mandate requires it to offer specific legislative recommendations, however, the panel plans to dodge any discussion of that controversial question.

"I think the question of the method of communication between a teacher and a child is nothing the United States Congress should get involved in," says Mr. Bowe.

The bottom line for many is that, despite the continuing debates over educational methods--and two decades of significant improvements in the field--a perusal of the achievement levels of deaf children remains, in Mr. Bowe's words, "sobering."

The average 12th grader reads at the 4th-grade level and performs at the 6th-grade level in mathematics.

Says Mr. Lane: "The debate will continue until the results are just so outrageous that no one can condone it."

Vol. 07, Issue 11

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories