What is the best approach and the best environment for the education of children who are deaf?
Deaf children have a right to, and a need for, Sign language as a language of instruction, regardless of whether they are mainstreamed in regular schools or enrolled in provincial schools for the Deaf.
Canada was one of the original signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. The UN Convention recognizes the right of Deaf people to equal access to education, and upholds their right to be educated in Sign language:
Article 24, Education:
3(b) Facilitating the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the Deaf community.
3(c) Ensuring that the education of persons, and in particular children, who are blind, deaf, and deafblind, is delivered in the most appropriate languages and modes and means of communication for the individual, and in environments which maximize academic and social development.
4 In order to help ensure the realization of the rights, States Parties [i.e., governments] shall take appropriate measures to employ teachers, including those with disabilities, who are fluent in sign language, Braille, and to train professionals and staff who work at all levels of education. Such training shall incorporate disability awareness and the use of appropriate augmentative and alternative modes, means and formats of communication, educational techniques and materials to support persons with disabilities.
The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada believes that the first and foremost need of the deaf child is a language which he/she can master easily, quickly, and comfortably; only then will the child have the linguistic tools to effectively master a second language, e.g., English or French. Research clearly shows that Deaf students with high levels of ASL/LSQ proficiency attain high levels of English/French literacy. This supports the argument for bilingual education: strengthening the students’ first and most accessible language will support their learning of English/French.
There is no credible research whatsoever in support of claims that learning Sign will interfere with the acquisition of spoken/written language. On the contrary, everything known about early language acquisition supports the use of Sign as a first language, even for babies, and even for non-Deaf children.
The success of the disability rights movement in closing down “institutes for the handicapped” and integrating children with disabilities into normal classrooms has unfortunately led educators, government policy advisors, and the medical professions to assume integration is the best option for all disabilities. In the case of deaf children, this is not true. For deaf children, the regular school is often not “the most enabling environment”; rather, it is “the least enabling environment”.
Deaf children in regular schools may have considerable difficulty in communicating with their teachers, all of whom are non-Deaf and who — in a classroom of twenty or thirty students of varying needs and abilities — cannot provide the special attention and communication needed by the deaf student.
Support services for deaf children in regular schools are very weak:
- Tutoring in ASL/LSQ is never provided, even in cases where educational authorities concede that Sign is the first language of a particular deaf student. Governments and school boards must support first-language acquisition for young Deaf children (including pre-schoolers); they do not learn ASL/LSQ by magic. As with any first language, a child must have constant exposure to their first language environment. A child who does not receive such exposure is at risk of not developing his/her natural first language, which will result in literacy and cognitive problems in the future.
- It is extremely rare for an isolated deaf student to have the full-time services of a Level 8 ASL/LSQ interpreter. If interpreters are provided, they are invariably people who could not pass interpreter certification tests such as the Canada Evaluation System. They also invariably work only in the classroom, leaving the child to fend for him/herself in the playground and in extracurricular activities. Moreover, studies prove that where one interpreter is forced to work alone in a classroom, the quality of interpreting becomes so filled with errors due to fatigue after just one hour as to be unacceptable and in fact detrimental to the education of the deaf student
- In most cases, the student will be provided not with an interpreter but with an Educational Assistant who has “some” Signing skills; the EA is then expected to be not only an interpreter but also a tutor and a teacher’s aide, a triple task that is not only impossible but unethical.
Academic performance and language skills acquisition are not the only reasons why the CAD-ASC advocates centralized Deaf schools as a valuable educational option for Deaf children. Social, psychological, and cultural factors are also important considerations.
We are aware that many non-Deaf parents of deaf children fear “losing” their child to the Deaf community. These are normal and natural parental concerns. Professionals and policy makers tend to play into these fears and suggest “solutions” that are based more upon political and financial expedients and the lobbying efforts of deafness technology interests than upon the actual needs and abilities of the deaf child. The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada strongly believes that parents need to be provided with fair, balanced, and extensive information before making any decision about education. This includes exposing them to Deaf professionals, Deaf community leaders, Deaf educators, and of course the Deaf schools. It also includes explaining to them the benefits, limitations, and risks to their deaf child of each educational option. Parents should never be pressured into making decisions without the opportunity to first meet and talk with Deaf people themselves; after all, who knows better the “pros” and “cons” of educational approaches than those who have been through them and are living with the results?
The issue of deafness does not exist in a community such as a provincial Deaf school; in other words, deafness is the norm here and as such is seldom noticed or made a concern (or a barrier). The child as a result has a better chance of learning within a healthy community where there is a free flow of information and communication. The classroom is tailored towards Deaf students, with lectures, note-taking, and information being presented in a way that allows the students to actively pay attention to the academic content, instead of trying to decipher content that is not presented through a medium in which they too can effortlessly and equitably function. They are able to actively participate in classroom activities by signing their thoughts, questions, and answers instantly in a direct exchange between themselves, their peers, and their instructors, without the need of going through an interpreter.
The deaf child in a regular school is usually isolated: research in Canada and the United States has suggested that by far the most common case is that a mainstreamed or integrated deaf child is either alone or accompanied by only one other deaf child. This fact has a profound impact upon his/her social life, social skills, and ability to interact with others. In a Deaf school, the deaf child is not isolated and does not “stick out from the crowd” as being “different”. He/she is among Deaf peers with whom he/she shares a language and a culture in which they are all capable of participating equally, comfortably, and naturally. Communication and interaction without barriers is tremendously important not only for the Deaf student’s academic achievement but also for his/her self-esteem, self-perception, and social development.
The deaf child in a regular school has little or no contact with other deaf people. There are virtually no deaf teachers, administrators, or other personnel in regular schools, and thus no role models for the deaf student. Most non-Deaf teachers are not competent to meet deaf children’s particular educational and sociocultural needs. The deaf child in regular schools has no exposure to Deaf culture, and of course is given no lessons or training in Deaf history, language, art, behaviour, or values; he/she remains “a stranger in a strange land”. In a Deaf school, on the other hand, the child is exposed to many other Deaf people and role models, as well as to the Deaf culture; he/she finds a true home.
The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada supports the philosophy of bilingual/bicultural education. This means that deaf children should be provided with skills and instruction in both ASL/LSQ and English/French, and that the children should be provided with a learning environment that recognizes and respects both Deaf culture and the dominant hearing culture. We believe that such a constructive approach to the education of the deaf will provide the deaf child with the tools needed to acquire knowledge and skills as well as self-esteem, at the same time that it prepares the child to live in the dominant non-Deaf culture.
Recommended reading: “Mainstream teachers about including deaf or hard of hearing students”, by Jorine A. Vermeulen, Eddie Denessen, and Harry Knoors. Teaching and Teacher Education, 2012, 28(2) p.174-181.
Recommended reading: The Politics of Language: Deafness, Language Choice, and Political Socialization, by James Roots. Carleton University Press, 1999.
Recommended reading: Environmental Factors in the Education of Deaf Persons, by Shelly Carver, Elizabeth Doull, Denise Read, Jay Patel, and Valerie Bertin, Canadian Association of the Deaf, 1991.
APPROVED: 3 JULY 2015
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada
606 – 251 Bank Street
Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1X3