Mainstreaming vs Deaf School

(Part II)

In a previous article titled Mainstreaming vs Deaf School (Baseball Version) I made a promise regarding my 10-year-old son. Here are my exact words:

The next camp Darren goes to, baseball or anything else, is going to be a deaf camp. There is simply NO substitute for being around your real peers.

To recap the events that led to this promise, last year Darren had the opportunity to participate in a top-quality baseball camp. But was it top-quality interaction? With a couple hundred hearing kids? Unfortunately, no.

Since Darren has an immense love for baseball, I figured he’d make the most of the experience. And he did. He succeeded in terms of improving his baseball skills. But there was still something wrong with the picture. Literally.

When the official team picture arrived at our house a few weeks later, I was taken aback at Darren’s expression. His teammates were grinning ear to ear. Darren, on the other hand, looked like he was sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office.

A heart-to-heart talk with Darren revealed what I’d known all along: Spending the entire day with hearing kids who don’t sign isn’t easy.

Advocates for inclusion will throw out the usual but it’s a hearing world argument and insist this is for the better good. Oh, please. We’re talking summer camp. We’re talking about having a good time, not stressing to fit in.

So what did we do? This time around we took a three-camp approach and boy, did we ever learn something during the summer of 2009.

The first camp we sent Darren to was Camp Overbrook: IN SIGN. It was a two-week camp for deaf and hard of hearing children sponsored by the Deaf Apostolate under the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The difference was remarkable. Upon arriving home from a full day at camp, Darren would excitedly talk—in detail—about what he learned. He talked about the camp’s guest speakers and performers, and he talked about new friends got to know on a much deeper level.

At last year’s baseball camp, Darren would often shrug and say “fine” when asked how his day went. Maybe he’d add something like “Number 9 hit a triple” (without knowing the actual name of number 9) or “I pitched two innings today.” At Overbrook, Darren would come home and name names. He’d repeat a joke that David told him, or talk about how he and Michael played a practical joke on Jeff. Nothing superficial. We’re talking real interaction here.

At the end of camp, Darren was part of a skit put together with the help of performers from Cleveland Signstage. I don’t want to make a big deal out of this because it was just a 5-minute skit, not a Broadway play. But I couldn’t help notice how Darren had a leading role in the skit.

Realistically speaking, if he was the only deaf kid in high school, do you think he’d get a leading role in a school play? Not likely. I’ve heard so many stories of deaf kids in the mainstream who don’t make the basketball team, don’t run for class president, and so on. I know there are exceptions, but the majority of solitaires just fade away in the background.

The next camp Darren attended was the Sertoma Fantasy Baseball Camp near Harrisburg, PA. We only attended two days out of the week-long camp, but again you could see the kids interacting on a level you just don’t see in the mainstream. A pool party and an evening excursion to a Harrisburg Senators minor league game were a ton of fun. There were deaf kids, hard of hearing kids, and some kids with cochlear implants. They didn’t care who was what. They just had a good time. Nice to see that. I love it when kids rise above the politics of their parents and teachers.

Finally, the camp of all camps: Camp Mark 7 in Old Forge, NY. A one-week camp way up in the boondocks. This is the one I was a bit worried about. Not just because of the distance (a good six-hour drive) or the fact it would be Darren’s first overnight camp.

I actually thought this camp might be too deaf.

Camp Mark 7 features an all-Deaf, all-ASL cast of amazing camp counselors. The kids who go there are mostly from deaf families. After interacting with hearing kids a majority of his time in school and on rec baseball teams, we felt it was time for Darren to get immersed in an all-ASL environment.

But at the same time, this was an overnight camp six hours away from home. What if it was too overwhelming? After all, Darren spent most of his early years as a hearing kid before he went deaf a few years ago. He hasn’t had the opportunity to meet as many other deaf kids as we would have liked. So would Camp Mark 7 be too much of a culture shock?

Not at all. The kid had the best time of his life. Camping, canoeing, visiting a water park, storytelling, swimming, and numerous other activities. He flat-out loved his camp counselors and raved about them on the ride home. He got along great with his peers. The only thing he was disappointed in was the fact that the camp was only one week, not two.

“You want to go back next year?” I asked.

“Yes! For two weeks!” was the enthusiastic reply. This coming from the same kid who shrugged “Eh, it was okay” after an exclusive baseball camp with hearing kids a year ago.

I’ve said this many times before and I’ll say it again now. Never underestimate the power of interacting with your true peers. It makes a world of difference. If you have a deaf kid and you're confronted with a school district that says otherwise, show 'em this article.

One other issue remains. I’ve asked Darren in the past if he would like to go to a deaf school. He’s always said no. The reason for this is because he’s known all of his current hearing classmates from way back in Pre-K, when he was still hearing himself. Even after going deaf, he still feels a life-long bond with them and that’s understandable.

At the same time, it’s very noticeable that his interaction with his hearing friends is at its best during recreational activities such as baseball, football, or bike-riding. During indoor parties or casual gatherings, he becomes quiet and often isn’t able to keep up with the conversation. Video games might break the awkward moments of silence but that’s pretty much it.

Time to pick the kid’s brains again.

“Say, Darren, would you like to go to a deaf school someday?”

Once more, he replies with the same answer:

“No. I’d miss all my friends.”

Now for the stumper:

“That’s true. Hey, what about Camp Mark 7? Would you like to go again?”

Once more, his eyes light up and he gives an emphatic “Yes!”

“All right,” I continued. “Now what if you could go to school with all your deaf friends at Camp Mark 7?”

This time, it hits him. He looks at me, starts to answer, then pauses. No words come out. The silence is deafening. It was a clear paradigm shift, a reality check.

Darren never answered my question. He didn’t have to. He’s still too young to make any heavy decisions. But he now has two things he didn’t have before: A frame of reference, and a fascinating journey ahead of him.

What Other Visitors Have Said

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Art Washburn, Ph.D. 
Wow! What a poignant story from Darren's Dad. I've taught in residential schools for the deaf. as well as Gallaudet, and also taught in day school programs …

Very independent thinkers like you and myself are a dying breed in the Deaf-World! The big problem in the Deaf community not to mention Deaf schools …