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Emily WardSPED 5177 November 2011Issue Brief Bilingual/Bicultural Issues and Deafness: A Review Nationwide, just over 0.1 percent of school-age children are deaf or hard of hearing (NationalCenter on Severe and Sensory Disabilities, 2008). This population, although seemingly small, offers aunique challenge to educators to determine how best to provide them with a free, appropriate, publiceducation. Because of the nature of their disability, students who are deaf or hard of hearing oftenenter school significantly behind their peers without auditory disabilities in terms of languagedevelopment, and to best serve them, educators and parents must work together to decide what pathwill provide them with an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. Over thepast several decades, the popular opinion on how to do this has changed several times, ranging from fullEnglish immersion in inclusive classrooms, to a bilingual curriculum in separate schools for the Deaf, andmany programs in between. The now-common practice of using cochlear implants has introduced a newtwist on the educational road for this population, and educators are still struggling to determine thebest course of action. Historically, the education of children who are deaf or hard of hearing has been an inconsistentone. The American School for the Deaf and Dumb, established in the late 1800s, was the first school tooffer formal education to students who were deaf, with the introduction of a formal signing system. As aresult of this program, soon most states adopted mandates that similar schools be built for thesechildren throughout the country, fostering the birth of Deaf culture. These schools allowed children whowere deaf or hard of hearing to finally have a community of peers where their deafness was not seen asa hindrance, but a necessary feature for inclusion. Despite the obvious benefits of these newcommunities, many educators argued against the standard use of sign, as they felt that sign language
was not a “true” language. It wasn’t until 1960 that linguist William Stokoe proved that the foundationsof sign language were equivalent with all other human languages, and American Sign Language (ASL)was born (DeLana, Gentry, & Andrews, 2007). Although it was clear to educators that students needed to be able to read and write in Englishto be successful, how students with hearing impairments would be taught changed in the 1980s, as thelanguage and culture of the Deaf community began to be increasingly valued. Bilingual programs wereintroduced, based significantly on the “theory of linguistic interdependence”, which proposes thatstudents will be able to transfer linguistic and literary skills to a second language (in this case, English), ifthey are first proficient in a natural sign language and that sign language is used for instruction (Mayer &Leigh, 2010). Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, bilingual education for students with hearing impairmentsbecame more fully adopted nationally, primarily in state schools for the Deaf. The specific nature ofthese programs varied, some using ASL as primary mode of instruction, others incorporating contactsigning, cued speech, finger spelling, and auditory/verbal therapy into their programs. Today, schools forthe Deaf are still using a combination of these techniques (Ahearn, 2011). However, with the 2004revision of IDEA and the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the push toward inclusive education forstudents with disabilities has caused a shift in the educational environments of students who are deafand hard of hearing. Additionally, the increasing numbers of children who receive cochlear implantshave shifted the needs of bilingual education for students with hearing impairments as well (Sweet-Barnard, Dozier, Finnerty & Ferrell, 2008). Various parties have a significant stake in this issue. First of all, educators have the responsibilityto provide free, appropriate, public education to all students, and the needs of this particular populationcan be extremely varied and costly. No student with hearing impairments comes to the educationsystem with the same linguistic background or needs—ranging from fully developed ASL signers of deaf
parents to children with little to no language acquisition due to minimal exposure to sign—anddetermining the best action for these students can often become a matter of what the district or schoolcan afford to provide (although according to the law, cost should not be a factor). Secondly, parentsrightly have strong opinions on how their child should be educated, and these opinions don’t alwaysmatch with what the school has determined to be the best approach. In one example in which theschool decided to educate the child using an oral method in a classroom for students with and withoutdisabilities, the parents, who were deaf themselves, felt this detracted from their child’s sense of selfand right to accessible education (Pittman & Huefner, 2001). The most important stakeholder toconsider, however, is the individual child. If the significant and distinctive learning needs of a child whois deaf or hearing impaired are not appropriately handled, that child may experience “delays in languageacquisition and communication development, as well as poor academic achievement, delays in criticalthinking skills, and difficulties with social and emotional development” (Sweet-Barnard, et.al., p. 3).However, if handled appropriately, students with hearing impairments can be competitive with, and insome cases, surpass standards for progress of their peers without hearing impairments (DeLana, et.al., p85). As mentioned above, IDEA and NCLB have changed the ways many programs function forstudents with hearing impairments. One major provision of IDEA that has benefitted these students isthe specification that requires IEP teams to determine the communication method as well as theteaching method to be used with students who are deaf or hard of hearing, implying that the child’spreferred method of communication is to be the mode of instruction (Pittman & Huefner 2001). Further,the accountability factors stressed by NCLB have caused early bilingual programs that typically have alarger focus on literary and language development to also push more math and science skills than before(Sweet-Barnard, et. al., p.6). One area of major confusion, however, lies in the requirement of the leastrestrictive environment for students. Typically, this is thought to mean that it is preferable to include
children with disabilities in classrooms with students without disabilities whenever possible. However,for students with hearing impairments, whether inclusion in the mixed classrooms is in fact “least-restrictive” is debatable, as placement among other children with hearing impairments can increasecommunication and confidence (Moore, 2011). As medical technologies are emerging that make it easier for children who are deaf and hard ofhearing to participate in classrooms with their peers without hearing impairments, it seems as thoughthis issue is becoming the standard debate of medical versus social model of disability. Should our goalbe to “fix” the deafness to make children with hearing impairments more capable of interacting withtheir hearing peers, or should our goal be to foster the unique Deaf culture that students who are deafor hard of hearing can bring to the world? Which is better for the student? I think the answer to thisquestion is extremely difficult to impose on families and it should be the family’s choice of whether tosend the child to an inclusive classroom in a local school or a separate school for the Deaf. Also, I agreewith Donald Moore, editor of American Annals of the Deaf, who calls for more research to be done inthis field to determine which path is more supportive of student needs (2008). Although data cannotfully solve this highly-charged issue, it can support our decision-making so that we can make the bestpossible choices for our children.
ReferencesAhearn, E.M. (2011). Children who are Deaf/hard of hearing: State of the educational practices. Project Forum at NASDSE. Alexandria, VA.Andrews, J.F. & Rusher, M. (2010). Codeswitching techniques: Evidence-based instructional practices for the ASL/English bilingual classroom. American Annals of the Deaf, 155(4), 407-424.DeLana, M., Gentry, M.A., & Andrews, J. (2007). The efficacy of ASL/English bilingual education: Considering public schools. American Annals of the Deaf, 152(1), 73-86.Knoors, A.& Renting, B. (2000). Measuring the quality of education: The involvement of bilingually educated deaf children. American Annals for the Deaf, 154(3), 268-274.Mayer, C. & Leigh, G. (2010). The changing context for sign bilingual education programs: Issues in language and the development of literacy. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13(2), 175-186.Moores, D. (2008). Research on Bi-Bi instruction. American Annals of the Deaf, 153(1), 3-4.Moores, D.F. (2011). Waist deep in the Big Muddy: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). American Annals of the Deaf, 155(5), 523-525.National Center on Severe and Sensory Disabilities. (2008). Considerations in providing a free, appropriate, public education to students who are deaf and hard of hearing in North Dakota. Greeley, CO: Sweet-Barnard, S., Dozier, C., Finnerty, M., & Ferrell, K.A.Pittman, P. & Huefner, D.S. (2001). Will the Courts go Bi-Bi? IDEA 1997, the Courts, and deaf education. Exceptional Children, 67(2), 187-198.