Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Deaf culture and inclusion

DISCLAIMER #1: I will try not to use too much education/special education jargon, but as I am writing this post as a means for me to think about this issue, I may slip into jargon at times, if I do please note it in comments and I will try to explain.
DISCLAIMER #2: This post is a bit long and rambling, it took two days to do and now I need to move on to other topics.

This is a follow-up to the review of Train Go Sorry I did here. In this book, the author, Leah Hager Cohen, discusses how much of the deaf community does not see the idea of having children who are deaf in a regular eduction classroom as a good idea or at least when she was writing this 15 years ago they did not. Cohen discusses how this is viewed as a threat to the deaf community and the deaf culture. That if children who are deaf are placed in regular education classrooms, they will lose parts of themselves and this will destroy the deaf culture. They are afraid that taking children from deaf only schools and placing them in inclusion or regular education classroom de-emphasizes deaf culture.

There is a valid point here. If the deaf culture is defined by the fact that its inhabitants speak another language, ASL. Also this is not a culture that your parents will necessarily pass down to you by the fact that deafness is not a hereditary trait so many children who are deaf are born to hearing parents. Deaf culture is also not like being Jewish or Muslim or African-American or Latino where your parents are in that culture so by you being their offspring you are also ensconced in that culture. Deaf culture grows out of the fact that an individual cannot hear and so being with other individuals who cannot hear provides you with a bond that may not exist otherwise. Deafness extends beyond religious and ethnic barriers, it is not defined by where you grow up or who your parents are, it is a part of you. You are deaf.

This fear by the deaf community also grows out of ignorance by those outside the deaf world. As Cohen points out, up until the mid-1960s ASL was not viewed as a valid communication tool. It may have been used in the home, but it would never have been acceptable in the educational world. ASL was viewed as proof that individuals who are deaf were inferior to their hearing brethren by the fact that ASL meant that the individual who was deaf did not have to speak. It made the individual who was deaf different than their hearing brethren. So many of the schools, including the Lexington School for the Deaf, that Cohen highlights was an oral school. They taught their students to lip read and to to speak English. Even when Cohen wrote the book in 1994, the Lexington School was just beginning to use ASL in the classroom and move to a more shared model of teaching both oral and manual communication. There has been a rise in deaf pride and the desire of many more individuals who are deaf to be able to not be treated as second class citizens and not have to be the same as the rest of the hearing world. With the Deaf President Now movement leading to the installation of the first Deaf president at Galludet University, the largest and best known liberal arts deaf university, there has also been a push by the deaf community to install more administrators who are deaf to schools around the county.

So what does this all have to do with how the practice of inclusion in the public school system affects the deaf community, a lot. In 1975 when Public Law 94-142 was enacted, it provided for the education of many individuals with disabilities to be educated in the public school system. This law has been renamed and is now known as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). PL 94-142 and now IDEA provide funding and support to state governments to provide public education for children with disabilities. At the same time over the past 20 or so years there has been a push to move away from the separate schools and separate classrooms for children with disabilities to a model of inclusion. This is where children with special needs are placed into the schools that they would attend if they did not have a disability and in many cases into the classrooms that they would attend if they did not have a disability. The idea is that the separate schools and separate classrooms were supposed to be separate but equal, but in many cases were not equal. There is also a lot of research that looks at the fact that inclusion benefits both the students with and without disabilities. (I am not going to go into specifics here, but there is a lot of evidence.) But what happens in the case of students who are deaf, where the teachers probably do not sign and these children now have no role models of successful individuals who are deaf? The deaf community argues children who are deaf need to be around other deaf people to learn ASL: and to be able to see that in a hearing world, even though you are deaf you can still be successful. The whole deaf pride movement also encourages those who are deaf to be around and involved with deaf causes and how are children who are not involved in the deaf schools to know about deaf pride.

The language acquisition of ASL and the need to be around other individuals who are fluent in ASL seems to make a lot of sense to me. I equate it to the language acquisition of other children. We know that children whose parents talk to them and interact with them and who hear a lot of different vocabulary and conversations are more likely to have better expressive and receptive language skills. So why can't the same be said for children who are deaf, why would putting them in a hearing school where they do not have the constant input of ASL language as a means of communication not hinder their language development in ASL over a child who goes to a school for the deaf and is surrounded by peers and teachers who use ASL constantly. I know there are some (many?) who would argue that by placing children who are deaf in regular education classrooms, we give the same opportunities for language development, but it is spoken language rather than manual language. But is that what is in the best interest of the children or is that just our own prejudices that everyone should communicate like us prevailing? Isn't this like the whole if you live in America you should speak English argument? Just because you live in a hearing world, should children have to be able to orally communicate?

As a teacher, I have concerns about public policy that are purported to be in the best interest of all children or all people. How can one law or policy be good for everyone? Each of us is an individual and so one mandate cannot cover every single instance. I am beginning to wonder if maybe the policy of inclusion is not as beneficial to children who are deaf as it is to children with other disabilities. But then what is the solution? It seems to be a slippery slope either way. If we allow for children who are deaf to not have to be in inclusion classrooms or even allow for them to be in their own schools for the deaf, what then stops someone from wanting separate schools for children who are blind or who have autism? Do we have to accommodate everyone and their individual needs for each separate population of individuals with a specific disability? But if we force children into inclusion classrooms, where they are not receiving the best instruction and where the needs of the hearing world are placed above the needs of the deaf community, are we being selfish and prejudiced?

I guess I am no the fence about this and many issues for children with special needs. Policies are set from government officials and school administrators that are supposed to be for the best interest of all involved, but no one policy can fit everyone.


Tengrain said...

Interesting topic, Boxer.

When I was a kid, my best friend's mother taught at the California School for the Deaf - they taught using ASL and English, because they did not want the kids to become ghettoized.

Anyway, we used to go there a lot for games and stuff, and after a while we both learned some ASL (just enough to get us into trouble at our own grammar school...), and made friends with the kids who went to school there.

It was really enriching for me, and helped me at a young age learn that so-called disabilities are not something that should divide us.



Anonymous said...

Good "op ed".
In my experiences, most people who are hearing impaired prefer to socialize w/ other people who are hearing impaired. I am not sure if the chicken or the egg came first. In the schools that I visit, children w/ hearing impairments who are included in "regular education" classes have interpreters who use ALS to translate the teacher etc.

Please use people first language :]

Boxer's mom

J said...

Hello Anonymous,

Your happy encouragement to use people first language is thoughtful and kind.

From my experiences with Deaf people, Boxer has used the currently culturally appropriate language.

The Deaf people I have met prefer to be called Deaf (as opposed to "people with hearing impairments"). The term "deaf" is preferred because it approriately signifies the person's membership in the culture. Boxer is writing about Deaf culture, therefore, the term "Deaf people" is the best choice.

Your use of "people with hearing impairments" is likely also culturally appropriate, as it sounds like you are talking about children who are not members of Deaf culture (perhaps, as Boxer discusses, because their parents are not Deaf).