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.
*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.