Plight of Utah’s Deaf Students, Part 1

After a corrective surgery, six-year-old Adam’s cochlear implant had broken. As an intern for the Utah Schools for the Deaf, I joined Adam on the rug for story time. When the teacher asked Adam in spoken English what color the turkey was, he looked around confused before looking to me. I signed COLOR, WHICH? Adam sat up and excitedly signed YELLOW. I responded RIGHT! . but when I looked up, I saw that I was in trouble. Apparently, I was forbidden to sign with Adam. His Individual Education Plan stated he must communicate using spoken English. His teacher kept him from recess to teach him how to say yellow. She made Adam touch her throat as she said a slow yeellloooww while his peers played outside for an hour.

I was very concerned that Adam was forced to learn a form of communication that was foreign, obtrusive and unsuccessful. His language was now legally forbidden, leaving Adam in a state of isolation, bound by law. He should be in a bilingual program playing and communicating with his friends at recess, not struggling with a language to which he does not have access.

There are several problems to an “oralistic” approach to deaf education. It arrogantly assumes that deaf children want to be like hearing people, that deaf children learn the same way hearing people do and that deaf children have the capability of becoming hearing. None of these are true.

Our deaf schools are mere speech clinics; subjects like history, science and math are neglected. The agenda is to “normalize” these children. Unfortunately, oral education is wasted on deaf children.
Lip-reading has been proven unsuccessful. A study conducted in the United Kingdom showed that after a decade of training, deaf people could not read lips better than their hearing counterparts. American deaf students generally graduate with a fifth grade reading level. How have we botched deaf education so badly?

Back in March 1988, the deaf student body of Gallaudet University (the nation’s only post-secondary university geared entirely toward deaf and hard-of-hearing students) put their foot down when yet another hearing person was chosen to be the next president. The students rallied for days, demanding a deaf president. After much media coverage and debate, I. King Jordan was installed as Gallaudet’s first deaf president. The world realized that there was a deaf community — they were competent, successful and embraced their deafness. The new president told the world, “Deaf people can do anything, except hear.”

However, political leaders misinterpreted the movement, thinking deaf people were fighting for the rights of the disabled. They failed to realize that the deaf community is a LINGUISTIC minority and not a disabled community; they were fighting for autonomy FROM the disabled label, not to gain access to it. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services have appointed hearing people who labeled deaf students as disabled. As other language minorities made great strides in gaining rights, deaf education was heading backwards. As Adam’s experience shows, the administrations have not valued ASL or the deaf community.

As I reflect back on my internship I am deeply saddened by the failure of deaf education in Utah. Instead of accepting deaf students and their language, I watched our education system waste millions of dollars worth of resources trying to “normalize” deaf kids. Let’s take a long-awaited step forward with deaf education and deaf rights and stop subjecting deaf students to an inferior education and give them the same opportunities as their hearing counterparts. We must stop hiding behind ignorance and acknowledge the plight of Utah’s (and the nation’s) deaf students.

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