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Keeping ASL at Center of Deaf Culture

Recent budget cuts in Indiana and other parts of the U.S. have threat­ened the future of state schools for the deaf, cre­ating worry among deaf and hard-​​of-​​hearing fam­i­lies that their chil­dren will be pushed into main­stream schools where Amer­ican Sign Lan­guage (ASL) takes a back seat to new “speaking and lis­tening” tech­nolo­gies. Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology Harlan Lane, who founded the ASL pro­gram at North­eastern and recently wrote a book about deaf cul­ture and deaf eth­nicity in the U.S., addresses the debate between spe­cial­ized vs. main­stream schools for the deaf, and explains how sign lan­guage trumps technology.

What are the con­se­quences of state budget cuts to deaf education?

The state budget cuts tend to be lev­eled at the res­i­den­tial schools for deaf edu­ca­tion because those schools tend to be more expen­sive than pro­grams in the local schools, which, in any case, are not paid by the state but are paid locally. In recent years, quite a few res­i­den­tial schools for the deaf have closed.

Is there an ideal learning envi­ron­ment for the deaf and hard-​​of-​​hearing?

By law, hearing-​​impaired chil­dren have a right to edu­ca­tion in the “least restric­tive envi­ron­ment.” For some, who can speak and hear, albeit with dif­fi­culty, that means a reg­ular “main­stream” class­room. Others are less restricted if inter­preters are employed in spe­cial class­rooms locally (pro­vided the child knows ASL and thus can under­stand the inter­preter). For a great many deaf chil­dren, how­ever, the school for the deaf is the least restric­tive. There, the pupils have fluent use of their best lan­guage, their sign lan­guage, which is used to teach Eng­lish and other sub­jects; they have deaf role models, a pos­i­tive iden­tity, extracur­ric­ular activ­i­ties and inci­dental learning. It is pos­sible to inte­grate the two approaches: Some res­i­den­tial pro­grams bus their stu­dents to the local schools for selected inte­grated classes, thereby enriching the res­i­den­tial school cur­riculum. When local schools cannot afford inter­preters, the inte­gra­tion tends to focus on arts and phys­ical education.

With new tech­nolo­gies to assist the deaf, like cochlear implants, will ASL one day be ren­dered obso­lete? Why do some par­ents steer chil­dren to use tech­nolo­gies to learn to “speak and listen” rather than nur­turing them to use their native lan­guage, ASL?

For the minority of chil­dren and adults who lost their hearing after acquiring Eng­lish, the implants can pro­vide helpful sup­ple­men­tary cues for lip-​​reading. How­ever, most deaf chil­dren, as the implant teams acknowl­edge, remain hearing-​​impaired after surgery; sooner or later these chil­dren dis­cover the power and beauty of ASL, which becomes their pri­mary lan­guage. In addi­tion, most chil­dren of deaf par­ents learn ASL as their first lan­guage. Finally, many fam­i­lies cannot afford the expen­sive surgery and pro­longed reha­bil­i­ta­tive therapy and embrace ASL by default.  So ASL is not likely to become obsolete.

Under­stand­ably, many hearing par­ents with a deaf child seek a deci­sive remedy and are quick to accept the fre­quently over­stated claims of the surgery-​​prosthesis-​​therapy com­plex. Par­ents are unlikely to learn about the Deaf World nor learn from it. They do not realize that deaf chil­dren of deaf par­ents, who learn ASL as a native lan­guage, far out­per­form deaf chil­dren of hearing par­ents in mas­tery of Eng­lish, in grades, in emo­tional adjust­ment, in like­li­hood of going on to col­lege and more. More­over, in our recent book, “The People of the Eye: Deaf Eth­nicity and Ancestry,” we make the case that deaf chil­dren are born into an ethnic group, with its own cul­ture, values, cus­toms and lan­guage — Amer­ican Sign Lan­guage. Hence, par­ents of a child born deaf or early deaf­ened have an eth­ical oblig­a­tion, like par­ents of a trans-​​racially adopted child, to assure that their child learns the lan­guage and cul­ture of its birthright.

 –  by Kara Shemin

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