Author’s note: Despite the title, I am fully aware that we have many hearing educators that are allies of the Deaf Community that understand us and support us in ways that honor the message I am trying to share below. I apologize if the title is off-putting for those of you who already have joined us in this quest to do whatever we can for deaf children in this country. A title is a tricky thing, and I couldn’t exactly title it in a way that says “except those of you who are already practicing this” in that title. There are many of you out there that not only have the best interests of these kids at heart, but your views are aligned with the views of the Deaf Community. This post is not for you. This post is for those who teach in ways that we in the Deaf Community don’t feel are aligned with what we consider to be the best ways to educate deaf children. And to them, I still offer this post with respect, with a desire for positive change that includes welcoming them as new allies. -J. Parrish Lewis.
Sometimes we have the best intentions, but we’re focusing on the wrong thing. Are you willing to consider the possibility that, just maybe, you have focused on the wrong thing?
I know, that sounds harsh, perhaps judgmental, but I assure you that I’m writing this with respect for you. I know so many of you have the best intentions when you’re out there every day teaching our community. I know the challenges involved.
I’m asking you to take the time to consider what I have to say and whether you would be willing to change your approach. I want you to be our ally. I really do. I believe you can be our ally, but being an ally means connecting with us on a different level than many of you are used to.
I want to challenge your assumptions. Some of these may not apply to you, but it’s worth reviewing. I’m going to use my own experience, because I want you to understand that I’m not trying to reject aspects of Deaf Education merely because it was difficult for me.
Being able to speak well, which I do, did not help me become more educated. It’s just convenient. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t like the ability to speak with confidence. I do, but it’s not that important. Being able to speak didn’t tear down the barriers I continue to face in life. Being able to speak well doesn’t change the fact that when people speak back to me, I can’t always understand them. Lip-reading is imperfect.
I’m not asking you to stop including speech for your students, just that it shouldn’t be a focus. I get that parents often want their deaf kids to speak and you can’t control that. If they ask for it, and it’s in the IEP, then the speech therapist has a job to do. I have nothing against speech therapists. Mine was obviously great. But I’d like you to think of speech as more of an elective, something that can be handy but not necessarily essential.
Here’s a key point: every hour that a kid is in speech therapy is an hour the kid could instead be developing literacy skills with reading and writing. I’d even argue they’d succeed more in life by spending that hour with a stack of comic books, so long as they actually read the comics.
Remember, this is a deaf guy with the ability to speak well that’s writing this post. I talk every day. I talk to all kinds of people. I use my voice all the time, and I want to because I’m “bimodal bilingual” (cool term, I learned it recently, through ASL!). I even sing to my kids, really terribly with a monotonous voice, but that’s okay. I’m someone who is really successful with being able to speak and I’m telling you right now that it is not actually that important. It’s just convenient. It’s handy. It’s a tool. It’s part of me, but it has nothing to do with my educational success.
Regarding sign language
It’s time we put an end to the lie that learning American Sign Language is going to hinder a deaf child’s ability to learn English. It’s just not true. It’s not true. If you’re someone that has said this, it’s really time to stop.
I have a lifetime of experience as a deaf person. I have 15 years of experience in serving the Deaf Community through my work at a non-profit deaf services organization. I have met countless members of my community over the years from varying backgrounds. The common trait of those that are skilled with English, whether they sign or not, is that they’ve learned to enjoy reading on some level. Books, magazines, those stacks of comic books I mentioned, poetry, cereal boxes, or whatever.
You can probably see by reading this post that English is a language I use comfortably. The truth is that I actually love the language. I cherish both of my languages. I am not someone who would reject English in favor of ASL. I am not someone who believes that deaf kids should only sign. I want them to sign and to learn English, and I know from experience that learning ASL will not hinder their abilities to learn English.
The Deaf Community has been calling out to you with hands both desperate and angry, because we’re passionate about fighting for the rights of our deaf and hard of hearing children. We believe in their right to communicate in the most accessible language, ASL, and we know without a doubt how ASL can then be used to teach English. We do not need to choose. We do not need to reject one or the other. We are just as capable as any human being on this planet to learn more than one language. Helen Keller, who was Deaf-Blind, learned not only English, but Latin, French, and German.
When are you going to let go of this myth that ASL will make it harder for deaf kids to learn English? Because that’s all it is, really, just a myth. It’s not learning ASL that hinders any development of English skills. In my non-academic opinion based on both my professional and personal experience, it’s the lowered expectations of a deaf child’s ability to read and write as well as their hearing peers. It makes no sense. If you put ear plugs in a hearing child’s ears, will the child then be unable to learn to read and write at grade level?
I do know and understand that it can’t all be left up to you, the Educators of the Deaf, to get all deaf children to be fully literate. Other factors need to be addressed, like parental involvement, peer interaction, and more. You can’t do everything alone, but you can do a lot. You can let go of these myths. That’s all they really are, myths born of good intentions gone awry.
Regarding what we can and can’t do
What we can’t do is a short list: we can’t hear the same way you do. Even those of us that get cochlear implants will never hear the same way you do. Technology fails, and we need to have a plan in place. I’ve met very few people who succeeded with a cochlear implant as much as I did, but even I haven’t been able to use mine in a decade. That’s life, full of the unexpected.
What we can do is nearly as unlimited as what the hearing can do. We aren’t limited by our being deaf. We are limited by hearing people who choose, consciously or not, to limit us. We are excluded, for one reason or another, by those who doubt our abilities. We are overlooked, left out, underestimated, and sometimes forgotten. It’s not our being deaf that causes all of this, it’s the choices others make.
And when we speak out, with our hands or voices, loud and angry or soft and calm, we have to fight to be heard. We have no choice but to speak out, in our own individual ways, on the behalf of those who are not ready to do it for themselves.
When you limit us, an injustice is being committed. You don’t mean to do it. You likely act out of kindness, sometimes out of genuine love, but we spend our lifetimes dealing with the consequences of your choices to limit us. We are like kites tangled up in string, never able to take flight.
But when you believe in us, when you trust in our abilities instead of being fixated on what you consider a disability, how we can soar! We take flight at last, going far and high, finding our way to unexpected freedoms.