A Step Backwards in Deaf Education

Over the past few decades, the deaf community has come a long way. There are plenty of reasons for us to feel good about accessibility in today’s world.

Sign language interpreters and CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) are available in classrooms, business meetings, public speaking events, and other venues that require translation.

Television shows are accessible thanks to captioning. Phone calls are easily made via videophones and 24-hour relay service providers. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects against discrimination in the workplace.  

It’s a great time to be deaf, isn’t it?

Not if you’re a mainstreamed deaf student in grades K-12.

For all of the amazing progress we’ve made with accessibility, we’ve taken an equally amazing step backwards in deaf education.

But how, you ask? Let’s take a look at the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 

Initially passed in 1975 as PL 94-142, IDEA was created with good intentions. It was meant to guarantee an education to kids who otherwise might have been denied such an opportunity in the past. Unfortunately, the interpretation of IDEA’s Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) sent deaf education plummeting back to the Stone Age.

IDEA says deaf students need to start with “the general education setting with the use of Supplementary Aids and Services before considering a more restrictive environment.” In a nutshell, this means “fail at the hearing program first before we can consider a deaf program.” For many deaf and hard of hearing students, valuable learning time is lost before an ideal educational placement is found.

You read that right: According to policy, an environment where you’re the only deaf kid in the whole school is considered least restrictive, while a deaf-friendly environment with deaf peers, teachers, mentors and coaches who understand you is considered restrictive.  Simply put, IDEA got it backwards.   

As a formerly mainstreamed deaf student, it wasn’t until I attended Gallaudet University—the world’s only university for deaf and hard of hearing students—when I met successful deaf peers and role models who infused a yes you can mentality that helped me succeed in the world at large.  For the first time, I was able to enjoy an authentic academic and social experience. I no longer had to employ any of the fake it til you make it survival skills to blend in with hearing students.

Note: I don’t want to give the impression that all mainstream schools are bad. Some of them are aware of issues affecting deaf and hard of hearing students and adapt accordingly. The programs that “get it” need to share their expertise with the programs that don’t.

You would think that I learned my lesson as a mainstream survivor. But no, I allowed my own deaf child to be mainstreamed for a while. I thought that recent improvements in accessibility meant that the mainstream environment must have improved, too.

It didn’t. Although my son’s school provided an ASL interpreter and his teachers absolutely rocked, the isolation that comes with being The Only One eventually caught up to him. So we transferred him to a deaf school and he loves it. He describes it as an enjoyable, stress-free learning environment where he can talk to anyone, anytime.

Before we made the switch to a deaf school, I became aware of a number of alarming incidents involving deaf and hard of hearing students in our neighboring school districts—incidents that greatly influenced my decision to transfer my son to a deaf-friendly classroom. Among them:

  • Parents being told to avoid sign language, even though research shows that sign language has no ill effects on, and in fact enhances, a deaf child’s language acquisition.
  • Parents being told that sign language harms a deaf child’s ability to speak (again, proven wrong by research; many kids can and do enjoy the benefits of multi-linguicism).
  • Parents not being informed of the many different communication options deaf children have, or being told that one must be chosen over the other.
  • Deaf students being intentionally kept apart from each other—in the same school!—because of different communication styles.

Can you believe this still goes on today?

I can tell you firsthand that being mainstreamed is stressful. So how can you separate a deaf kid from another deaf kid, knowing that they’re probably the only people who understand each other’s struggle?

I originally ranted about this at during a Madness in the Mainstream presentation at Swarthmore College in 2013. It was more or less repeated in the fall of 2014 during presentations at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. The looks of disbelief in the audience are priceless when they find out this kind of thing goes on. Once again, here’s the gist of my rant:

If you adhere to the ancient practice of separating deaf children because of different communication methodologies or any other reason--and I say "ancient" because research has proven it's wrong--then you have no business celebrating Diversity Day. There's plenty of diversity amongst deaf and hard of hearing kids and they benefit immensely when they're allowed to interact with each other. No two deaf people are exactly alike and there are different ways they can communicate and succeed in this world. When you allow them to see their own diversity, you empower them. But if you separate them, you push them into a world of isolation that goes against everything Diversity Day stands for.

We can no longer ignore the decline of educational progress for our deaf and hard of hearing children, nor can we ignore the misguided attitudes and intentions of the school districts that cause so much hardship. It is my hope that readers of both hearing and deaf communities will join the call of true equality in education for our students. 

If this article has you muttering that deaf education is spiraling down the drain, there’s something you can do about it. The Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD) has initiated The Child First Campaign, which aims to ensure that IDEA appropriately addresses the needs of deaf and hard of hearing children.

This includes a petition for H.R. 4040, the Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act—a collaborative effort reforming education for the deaf, hard of hearing, blind, and visually impaired. Sign the petition and encourage others to do the same.

You can also spread awareness about an exciting new book that’s making the rounds. Gina Oliva and Linda Lytle have teamed up to write Turning the Tide: Making Life Better for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Schoolchildren. This is the most comprehensive, research-based book on the subject. Read it, share it with others, and bring it to the attention of legislators who need to be aware of key issues in deaf education. 

As much as possible, we need to shed light on these key issues, issues that often that fly under the radar in the mainstream. Your voice matters.  It’s time for all of us to speak up and make a difference.