During a Madness in the Mainstream presentation at Swarthmore College (September 23, 2013), I offered the following scenario:
Deaf Student A and Deaf Student B are enrolled at a local elementary school. They attend this school together for several years. The stress of mainstreaming eventually causes Deaf Student B to have a meltdown. Which student, out of the entire student body, is best equipped to understand and support Deaf Student B?
The audience unanimously agreed that the answer was Deaf Student A. At which point I dropped a bombshell:
“Wrong! Absolutely wrong! According to the school district, absolutely wrong.”
The next PowerPoint slide revealed the shocking answer:
1) Keep Deaf Student A and Deaf Student B apart.
2) Do not allow Deaf Student B to interact with the ASL Interpreter working with Deaf Student A.
Jaws hit the floor as I explained that the above scenario was not a hypothetical situation, but something that had actually happened not long ago. It occurred at the mainstream school my son used to attend.
Yes, my son Darren was Deaf Student A. He has since transferred out of the mainstream and is now enrolled at a deaf school. The only reason I know about Deaf Student B is because Darren’s younger brother, Brandon, witnessed the aforementioned meltdown. Get a copy of Madness in the Mainstream if you want the gory details—it’s all in there.
At this point my presentation devolved into a full-blown rant.
“I know, it’s insane. Two deaf kids in the whole school and they kept them apart. How absurd is that? Okay, okay, we can’t blame the school itself. The teachers were handcuffed by conflicting communication goals in each student’s IEP. They had to follow Deaf Student B’s IEP as much as they had to follow Darren’s. They provided everything we asked for Darren. Interpreters, note-takers, captioned videos... you name it, they did it. They were fantastic. Can’t find fault with them. So if you want to blame someone, blame the lack of advocacy for Deaf Student B when he was first identified as deaf. Clearly Deaf Student B is a non-signer and his family was advised to keep it that way. That kind of advice usually comes from doctors and EHDI.
But you know what gets to me? Every year, that school celebrates Diversity Day. Diversity Day! Are you kidding me? You want to talk about diversity? I’ll give you diversity.
You’ve got deaf people, culturally Deaf people, hard of hearing, late-deafened, deaf people with and without cochlear implants, oral deaf, signing deaf, deaf people who use any combination of communication styles and technology. Hello! That’s diversity right there. It’s inspiring for deaf kids when they learn that there are other deaf people out there with all kinds of different backgrounds. They can learn immensely from each other. Why in the world would you want to intentionally keep them apart?”
Earlier in the presentation, I had explained that there’s a continuum of deaf people with differing communication styles, and that it’s healthy for deaf children to be exposed to all of this. To be able to meet deaf people of different backgrounds gives deaf children a frame of reference that helps them discover who they are.
But to shield a deaf child from “different” deaf people… to deny a deaf child the opportunity to see that there are many others with similar backgrounds and that there are a variety of ways they can succeed in this world… that’s imposing limits. It blocks a deaf child from realizing his or her potential.
A lot of deaf children get blocked. They get blocked because people fear the unknown, and there are a lot of harmful myths that affect the way parents make decisions for their deaf children. Let’s take a close look at two of them.
Myth Number One: If you expose deaf children to American Sign Language or other deaf people, you will lose them to Deaf culture.
I had fun with this myth during the presentation. I pulled my hearing son, Brandon, out of the audience.
“See this kid? This is my youngest son, Brandon. He’s hearing. He goes to a hearing school. I can tell you from my own personal observation that hearing people are weird. They talk with their mouths. Ewww! That same orifice they shove food in—they actually talk with it.
But I trust them. I trust those hearing people to give my hearing son an education. And they do. Every day, I send Brandon to that hearing school and… (smacking myself on the head)… he keeps coming back! I can’t get rid of him. Every day I kick him out of the house to go to his hearing school and every day he comes back. I don’t lose him to Hearing culture.
Likewise with his older brother Darren, who’s deaf. I send Darren to a deaf school. I don’t lose him to Deaf culture. I actually gain a happier child. Darren was miserable in the mainstream. His grades were good but he couldn’t keep up with anyone in social situations or benefit from the incidental learning that is so important to all of us. He was actually getting quite cranky at home during his last year in the mainstream, wasn’t he, Brandon? (Brandon rolls his eyes and nods affirmatively.) Now Darren comes home with all of these exciting stories to share with us. He’s a better person for it. We’ve all gained something. There’s no losing anyone to anything going on here."
That certainly took care of that. But there was still Myth Number Two to deal with, and that one is the biggest barrier of them all:
Myth Number Two: If you expose your deaf child to American Sign Language and/or to deaf people who use it, it will ruin your deaf child’s speech—and if your deaf child has a cochlear implant, signing will ruin your child’s progress with it.
I had to dig out the heavy artillery for this one. Some research was needed, and the findings are mind-boggling.
From Evidence of Best Practice Models and Outcomes in the Education of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children: An International Review (2009) by Mark Marschark, Ph D & Patricia E. Spencer, Ph D:
“Sign vocabulary acquired before cochlear implantation supports rather than impedes acquisition of spoken vocabulary, and the introduction of new words in sign as well as speech supports their acquisition in spoken form.”
“Expressive use of signs supports, and is not detrimental to, children’s use of speech when diagnosis and intervention occur early.”
So even if you’re part of the auditory-verbal camp that supports listening and speaking more than (or in place of) sign language, research has clearly proven that ASL benefits deaf children of all backgrounds, and even aids the progress of CI users. And let’s not forget the scores of hearing parents of hearing children flocking to baby sign language classes because they know it offers a critical head start in language acquisition—while ironically, hearing parents of deaf children are often discouraged from pursuing this opportunity.
I'm not going to say that ASL is for everyone. Nor would I want to force it onto someone who doesn't want it. But to deliberately shield a deaf child from exposure to people who use it--come on, that's absurd.
Perhaps the most absurd thing of them all is that many deaf children are still isolated in the mainstream—and in some cases, such as the situation with my son, deaf children in close proximity to each other are intentionally kept apart.
Deaf kids in the mainstream face a tough, uphill battle to succeed at their respective schools. Without a frame of reference, often they'll believe their frustrations are acceptable with a resigned "it is what it is" mindset.
Later in life, some of these students finally meet deaf peers that they can relate to. If they eventually transfer to a deaf school or attend a deaf postsecondary program such as Gallaudet or NTID, they soon realize that education doesn’t have to be as stressful as it was in the mainstream. In fact, to their surprise, they learn that education can be an enjoyable experience. At which point they look back and ask:
“Why didn’t anyone tell me about this before? Why didn’t anyone speak up?”
On behalf of Deaf Student B, the time to speak up is now.