Deaf-Centered Topics

I’m afraid deaf education has fallen apart

Horace Mann School for the Deaf, Miss Fuller and Her Class, Boston, Photograph by A.H. Folsom, 1893, Boston Pictorial Archive
Horace Mann School for the Deaf, Miss Fuller and Her Class, Boston, Photograph by A.H. Folsom, 1893, Boston Pictorial Archive

I would love to be proven wrong, but deaf education, as a whole, seems to have fallen apart. Not swiftly, and not recently, but a decade or two or three ago, and it’s seemed like a dismal decline since then.

I have some words to say on this topic, but I want to be clear that I’m only giving you my opinion. I won’t claim to be right about this, though I think I am.

First, I want to give you an understanding of who I am, so that you can understand where I am coming from and what experience informs my perspective.

I am not a researcher, unless you count my obsessive need to know a wide variety of unrelated things about anything in particular, for no reason at all. I am not a teacher. I am not a parent of a deaf child.

I am a deaf person who was fortunate enough to have people keep high expectations for me throughout school, even when I was too lazy to do a good job on my homework. I am a deaf person that once was a student in a special education class full of kids with a wide variety of disabilities. In fact, for a time, there were only two of us in the class who were deaf. Most of our education came from the teacher’s aide who often interpreted. She’d teach us English and math while the teacher would handle the rest of the class. She was amazing and taught us that we could learn anything the hearing kids could. Expectations were never lowered.

For middle school and high school, I was mainstreamed. I had ASL interpreters, and I was always the only deaf kid in the class. I stood out like a sore thumb and felt pretty socially isolated, but I got an education. Truthfully, I was kind of a dismal student as far as getting my homework went. I’d wait until 4 a.m. in the morning to write papers on the day they were due. I’d stay up all night reading a book the night before the book report was due, because I waited until then to even begin reading. Yet, in spite of being this dreadfully unmotivated student, every single one of my teachers kept expectations high. My parents also kept their expectations high. No one let me use my deafness as an excuse. Because of this, I’m comfortable with English and a variety of other subjects. I’m not a genius. I’m intelligent, but nothing that will astound anyone, unless they’re biased in my favor.

I promise you, I am explaining all of this for a reason. I’ll get to it, soon. Just a little bit more, so bear with me.

I got my license to drive when I was 16. Only failed the test twice. Aren’t you glad I’m on the road? I got better, and this was helped by the experience of driving from Maryland to Georgia with my older brother, that same year. I’m a careful driver and pretty good about following laws, if you can overlook the occasional excess of 5 miles per hour over a limit. Maybe 6. I believe in fully stopping at stop signs and not running red lights. Crazy.

I graduated High School with a diploma at 18. I went to college that fall. I spent the first couple of years continuing to be a lazy student, because I loved learning but hated coursework. Eventually, when I finally started taking school more seriously and realized if I didn’t shape up, I wouldn’t graduate, I finished my B.A. degree in Human Communications. I had grand ideas of being a writer, which is why I focused on journalism. I wrote books that I didn’t finish.

After graduation, I got married to an amazing woman who is hearing and fluent in ASL. We moved to Fremont during the worst possible time, when rent had skyrocketed. I got a job working as a copy editor and page designer for a newspaper company, but my wife and I barely saw each other for 10 months due to our opposite schedules. We fled the East Bay Area’s outrageous costs and settled in Santa Cruz.

After a few months of job searching, I ended up working for a deaf services agency as a client advocate, then over the years got promoted a few times. Currently, I am on the management team as a Project Director. I have spent almost 15 years in the social services field. I never planned to be in this field, but the experience has given me a lot of insight. In 15 years of working for the agency, I have seen an abundance of deaf community members with varying experiences, education, and capabilities. At this point, very little is new to me. I have met teachers in deaf education, both skilled ones and unskilled ones.

I have seen, time and again, the results of our current educational system for the deaf. I have been told other stories as well. It is disheartening.

Before I give examples of what needs to change, let me say this: the problems I see are almost always when kids are either mainstreamed with unqualified interpreters or when they are in classes where expectations are consistently low. Deaf education in the residential deaf schools often seem to be more successful, though I believe improvements need to happen there as well. Today my focus is on those not attending residential schools.

Am I trying to say deaf kids shouldn’t be mainstreamed? No. Am I trying to say deaf kids shouldn’t be in deaf day classes? No. Am I saying they should all go to residential schools for the deaf instead? No.

Guess what? Deaf kids aren’t cookies. They don’t all fit the same mold. Some will thrive in mainstream, some in deaf day classes, some in residential deaf schools. However, and this is the key point: the way education is set up for them has got to be effective. Otherwise these students are fish swimming against the stream. They may do well, in spite of a dysfunctional educational setting, but it won’t be because of that setting. Most will flounder and get swept away. It doesn’t need to be this way.

I have known innumerable deaf individuals that finished high school with severe language deficiencies. Many who finish as late as age 22, with a certificate of completion rather than a high school diploma. Most will not go to college or trade schools. Most will end up unemployed, perhaps relying on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits that barely provide enough for independent living. It doesn’t need to be this way.

I have known of teachers that spend an excessive amount of time trying to get the kids to speak English clearly, at the cost of educational minutes that would be better spent on literacy, math, science, and more.

I have known of teachers believing their students could read well, because the students can sign into ASL what they read from a 3rd grade-level text. Then, a few minutes later, when the students are asked what the sentences actually are trying to say, they don’t have an answer, which baffles the teacher. The students may be able to read it, but they don’t always comprehend what they read. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I have known of so many deaf individuals who have yet to get a license to drive, decades after they could have. Not out of a choice to be environmentally-friendly or to save costs, but because they just simply weren’t taught how. And if they did learn how, they were not given enough education to pass the written test. Sometimes this is waived in favor of an ASL video test, but not always. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I see the constant frustration at the barriers that appear everywhere we go. Barriers can be demolished, if we have the tools to use and the understanding of how to use them.

So how did we get here?

I wish I had the definitive answer to that question ready for you. I’d love to be able to explain it precisely and say, “This. This is how.” with complete confidence. I can’t. I can only theorize based on my knowledge and experience.

I believe that the problem is due to three primary reasons:

  • Parents don’t take steps to ensure they have 100% communication with their kids from the time their kids are first old enough to learn. You can start teaching an infant ASL a few months after they are born. You can use ASL while teaching English vocabulary. As a side note, I DO believe all deaf kids should be taught English to be on the same skill level as their hearing peers. I just believe that ASL should be a part of this process.
  • Teachers get students already delayed in language and comprehension abilities, and don’t raise expectations. The best of teachers will try everything they can to get them caught up. The best of teachers will seek for communication to become 100%, with comprehension just as important. This is a difficult task, but it is doable if everyone does their part and expectations are never lowered. We deaf people can do anything hearing people can do. (*Except hear like hearing people do, of course, but Fred Schreiber, NAD’s first Executive Director, already said that in 1972.) There are plenty of great teachers that are stuck in a system that doesn’t seem to be set up for success. Teachers for the Deaf really need to be exemplary from the very beginning to the very end, and have a partnership with parents.
  • Students believe they are limited. They don’t believe in their ability to keep learning. They don’t believe that they can be as knowledgeable as their hearing peers. They don’t believe they can do anything they put their minds to. They think that their world has only limited possibilities, and this belief is reinforced by too many adults and too many peers.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

So, how are we going to fix this? I don’t have any easy answers. This is a problem that many deaf-centered groups are working on. Systems advocacy is going on every day, behind the scenes. These are stories that aren’t reaching the front page of the media outlets. Most people have no idea this is a problem.

Change becomes possible when we elevate a problem to the height that everyone sees it. We need that to happen. We need the collective will of millions of caring people to make change really happen, and permanently. We need to support the best teachers we have and demand that the rest begin to make changes. Expectations must be increased. We need to support families with deaf children, helping communication in these homes reach 100%. We have got to work together.

I want you to picture this:

Imagine a deaf high school student who just finished High School. She’s got a world of possibilities before her, and she’s spend her entire life up until that point given a complete education on par with her hearing peers. She can put her mind toward any goal, and she believes that her dreams are possible. The fact that she’s deaf is one aspect of her character, perhaps a huge part of who she is, but it will never have meant any limitation other than not being able to hear. Which, by the way, she may be completely fine with, and even value as part of her identity.

Doesn’t that picture sound much better than what I’ve explained is currently the norm?

I invite you to be a part of this effort to raise awareness on behalf of our deaf community. Join us, and believe in us. That is all I ask.

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*Correction: Earlier, I credited I. King Jordan, but have since learned that he was not the first to say the phrase. I. King Jordan is well-known for repeating this well-known statement during Deaf President Now.


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J. Parrish Lewis was born and raised in Maryland. In his youth there, he and his brother had many adventures in the dogwood forests near his home. His nostalgia for these adventures has strongly influenced his characters, their relationships, and their perspective on the world they inhabit. He moved to California’s coast to earn his degree in communications and now lives with his family in the San Joaquin Valley. Lewis is profoundly deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. He enjoys hazelnut coffee, captioned movies, and walking his dog.

17 Comments

  • Melissa

    I am a teacher of the deaf and I am a parent of a deaf child. While you are right that many deaf students aren’t being held to the same standards as hearing students, I believe that you have not seen the correct reasons. You are pushing for ASL as the primary language when research says that children who use spoken language have better academic and vocational outcomes overall. Because they use English as their primary language (and the language of their thoughts) they don’t have to translate from ASL when they read. They also have access to the language of their families, and their peers.

    • J. Parrish

      Obviously, I love English. In fact, it’s my favorite language. I believe that as much as ASL should be used, English should also be equally used. Can you point to the research you mention? I would advocate for both, not just one. ASL and English in equal measure.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Rebecca Bryant

    As a mom of a deaf child, I would like to add a thought. Many deaf children (small d intended) particularly deaf children from hearing families who are born deaf,(the majority of deaf people are born to hearing families) have other educational issues going on that are not related to their deafness. There is a reason these kids are deaf-not “gone wrong”, but “gone different” while being developed in the womb. Often times this is overlooked by professionals. That deafness is not the only anomaly happening with a certain child. Evaluations are most often done by professionals that have never even encountered a deaf child- so even a “non-verbal” eval might not be accurate.. I think often, true learning disabilities go undiagnosed because “well, the child is deaf so they will be a bit behind”. I think it is important to understand your child as a whole- and know for sure whether your child is deaf only, or struggles in other areas.

    *Btw, I have never seen a statistic that indicates that deaf children do better with English as a first/only language. If that were in fact true, parents of hearing children would have boycotted “baby signs” years ago!

  • Kathy Weldon

    I worked as social worker in middle school. I am hard of hearing who grew up with deaf parents and deaf siblings.
    What I see is that parents are NOT communicating with their deaf child. I see deaf students returning from weekend bored and ignored by family members. I see happy deaf child whose parents are very involved and involved with deaf community.
    I see some teachers focused on English language but cannot compete with lack of natural learning that should take place at home. Yes there is a missing gap!

  • Angela

    I’ve been debating on how much to say. And it’s based on 17 years of teaching in the field.
    The goal of bilingual education is developing fluency in both languages. So when fluency is achieved, English is formed in thoughts and used, ASL is formed in thoughts and used. So no translating is happening. The translating is used when the first language has been esteblished and the 2nd one is being introduced. But that is never the end result or goal. The goal is fluency in both languages.
    Most children are born to hearing families. The goal of bilingual education is to provide the children the language most accessible and also the language of the hearing community they are born in. Look to Maryland School for the Deaf that are beating the hearing kids on state tests. Bilingual education does work when the right environment is established through high quality teachers, language peers, and parent involvement.

    I have seen time after time deaf children who got access to bilingual education early and who got it late. The most successful got it early. And parent involvement. Parents don’t have to be the best signers, they just have to try.

    Let all communication tools be on the table for the kids.

    Just met another deaf adult who is about 50 a month ago who was oral only growing up. Realized she was missing something and is trying to learn ASL now. It’s always harder to learn as an adult. Language learning, including multiple languages, happens easier as a child. Time spent on ASL does not take away from spoken language learning.

    Not every child is the same. Time spent in ASL learning and spoken language can be different. Follow the child’s needs in this.

    Yes they are successful oral only deaf but one way should not be imposed on all. Follow the child’s needs with all tools on the table to make the best use of early language learning.

    And I agree with the author. Teachers of the Deaf have to be “game on” from day one.

    • J. Parrish

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience! I am not at all surprised by Maryland School for the Deaf being leaders in this field. In fact, I wish I had the opportunity to attend myself when I was a child growing up in Maryland. It wasn’t that far away, but my parents made the decision to have me mainstreamed with an interpreter provided. At least I had communication access and a good education, even if I suffered socially.

      All tools on the table. Yes.

  • Kim

    As a mother of a deaf adult now, getting information about education options etc is very hard to come by. I have so many emotions due to the disservice by both deaf educators and the community at large. Angela you articulated so eloquently how the young should be approached. There should be better standards and expectations. I fought at every level for my child. I also like think the deaf culture also does a tremendous disservice on all the prejudices they continue to teach. I am looking forward to reading more. I would also love to hear about any symposiums that may occur on this subject

    • J. Parrish

      The key would be to call it neglectful communication. There are plenty of loving parents who don’t take the time to sign. It IS neglectful to not ensure full communication access, but I would not call it abuse. If we call it abuse, it’ll meet more opposition and is less likely to become a law. If we label it as neglect, it has a chance of becoming law.

  • Mah-rya

    I think people often confuse “language” with “speech.” It is critical that infants are exposed to LANGUAGE from birth – be it ASL or English or French or Russian or Arabic or…well you get the idea. The specific language or the form (auditory or visual) is less important than the ACCESS to the language in the environment. This is the challenge of deafness, it isn’t a lack of language in the environment, it is a lack of ACCESSIBLE language in the environment. This is why hearing children of Deaf parents (often) learn both ASL and English, both languages are in the environment and they have access to both languages. Double win.

    Now let’s talk about d/Deaf infants born to hearing parents…there is language in the environment – auditory language. These children may or may not have access to that language – at what dB level does the child access auditory information? is the child using some sort of assistive technology to access auditory information? Are the batteries fully charged and working? Does the infant/child actually receive beneficial access to the auditory language? What are they still missing from only auditory stimuli? The answers to these questions will determine if spoken English in the environment provides meaningful language exposure. Now, let’s change the form of language in the environment: ASL – visual language. It doesn’t require batteries, it doesn’t require technology, it doesn’t depend on dB levels. If it is in the environment, it will be accessed, no questions asked, no limited communication, no negative impact to cognitive development (in fact, quite the opposite).

    Early exposure to accessible language is what is critical. All too often hearing parents choose speech or audition over language and only (if at all) add in sign language when the child demonstrates delays. Why would we not choose a visual LANGUAGE to ensure cognitive development, to provide communication and connection, add in written English, if the child benefits from audition and wants it, let them use that too. More tools, not less.

    I am hearing. I fell in love with sign language when I was very young. In High School, I met Deaf people and realized the power of COMMUNICATION. In college, I studied ASL and worked with Christie Yoshinaga-Itano on research regarding the importance of early identification and intervention (early exposure to language). I fell in love with Deaf people and culture. I became a certified sign language interpreter. I worked for 6 years as an interpreter. My first child was born. He was three and a half when we found out he was Deaf. He had undetected progressive hearing loss and by the time we discovered it, he no longer had any access to the spoken language in his environment. Thank God I had signed with him (even if not 100% of the time) from birth! He had some access to language. Well, when we found out, I started signing all the time, my husband started learning sign. We did choose to give him hearing aids as he had some early access to auditory language and both spoke and signed some already. We put him in a bilingual Deaf run preschool, he was exposed to sign. He attended the preschool for 2 years, until he walked up to me and said with his voice, “I don’t want to go to a signing school, I want to go to a talking school.” Well, that was opposite of everything I would’ve thought, imagined or believed! He currently is currently mainstreamed and reads at a high school level (and is only in 4th grade). He also struggles with social isolation and we try to help with that where and when possible and keep his toes in touch with the living waters of the Deaf community, but for now, he has not chosen that path. (I hope eventually he does.)

    I am a professional turned parent…and I think my child could be the poster child for the fact that using ASL doesn’t impede one’s desire or ability to use speech – *IF* the child has that desire/ability. And if the child doesn’t speak, but can express themselves fully in ASL? Wonderful! In written English? Fabulous! This is far better than someone having a negative cognitive impact from limited exposure to language.

    More tools. More language. More exposure. More experience. Why would we want to limit anyone?

    • J. Parrish

      Thanks for sharing, Mah-rya! Your son’s fortunate to have parents giving him this high level of communication access. Clearly it is working. The social isolation aspect is difficult. In the absence of a deaf school or deaf class, I would have wanted for myself to have some regular social event where everyone had to practice ASL, like an ASL club, even if I was the only deaf person. For so many years, I felt that isolation, but I didn’t know what I could do about it.

      Another thought: videophone interactions with other deaf kids like your son. Perhaps that will help as well with the social aspect. Seems like everything else is a great fit for him.

  • Mary

    I am a certified interpreter and work in college settings. I have been very surprised to have Deaf students coming from Deaf residential programs as well as a 2 year degree from either Gallaudet or NTID and still needing to take non-credit reading and writing classes at the community college because they cannot pass the placement test to take community college-level English 101. This English class they take is about middle-school to low level high school. I would understand if these deaf students were coming straight from high school (residential or mainstreamed) but they are coming in with a 2 year degree from a Deaf college and still do not have high school level English skills. What is NTID and Gallaudet teaching in their LA classes for these students, I wonder? Why are they setting the bar so low and allowing them to have an AA or AS degree while still unable to transfer into an English 101 class in a community college?

  • Mah-rya

    Thanks so much for your thoughts! Yes, at the moment, he really opposes anything ASL. So, we go to events more because I’m an interpreter, but he still gets exposure. I think your idea of an ASL club is great, and I think it might be time for my husband (and son) to take up some more ASL classes….

    It has also been challenging to find other non-signing Deaf kids. So many are mainstreamed and “fine” and functioning in the larger hearing community that parents often don’t see the importance of social gatherings with other d/D/HH kids. I long for a more inclusive and interactive community.

    We shall see what the future holds…

  • Zelda Isaacson

    hello
    i think the falling apart is because of lack of clarity in deaf ed. This is caused partly because of an exquisite desire for political correctness and partly because of ignorance . political correctness means that teaching deaf children to speak well is regarded as abusing his right to be part of deaf culture . Not true : teaching children to speak well simply means they speak well and have more opportunities.
    Ignorance is the lack of acceptance of the well demonstrated neurological fact that oral speech and language develop through sound, and this sound has to be given at a critical time. if it is too late the time for learning language ( and let us put it in right here Litereacy ) passes, is missed, is gone, finito. SIgn language can be learned at any timme. i am not talking of depriving children of communication – no no no – just be aware of what you are doing and dont go for political gobbledy gook
    sign language is an important tool for communication, and is a natural language – important for all teachers, all deaf kids, but without oral language, no oral speech , no litereacy no fulfillment of potential.
    time for educators to stop squabbling and give deaf kids everything

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