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Teaching the Deaf an Issue in Many States Across the Nation

Aug 17, 2011

Add specialized schools for blind, deaf and disabled students to the growing list of casualties as budget cuts continue to affect educational institutions and programs across the U.S. However, in some states the threats against schools for the deaf simply fuel an already-heated argument between advocates for the teaching of American Sign Language (A.S.L.) and those who favor a more mainstream education for deaf and hard of hearing students.

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By Harrison Howe

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Budget Cuts Threaten Personal Choices

It's happening in New York. And in Indiana. And North Carolina. And Kansas, Oregon, West Virginia and South Dakota, too. The effects of cuts to schools for the deaf are being felt in a growing number of states. Some see the potential closing of separate state schools for the deaf as an abandonment of A.S.L., the preferred mode of communication for many deaf people. Others see it solely as a money issue, asserting that in the long run taxpayers would benefit from bringing deaf and hard of hearing students into the mainstream.

But it's far more than a black-and-white issue of learning methods and budgets. To some, including Indiana Association of the Deaf president Marvin Miller, sending deaf school students off to other schools 'takes away their language' (The New York Times, July 26, 2011). Cutting back on programs for the deaf removes the freedom of choice between sending a deaf child to schools where A.S.L. is taught or to public schools where speech is the main form of communication.

It's a delicate issue, one made even more volatile because of the emotions it evokes. Some parents and advocates of deaf schools simply cannot understand how others could want their children to be 'mainstreamed'. Parents who support the idea of technology, including amplification or cochlear implants, to help their children enter a more conventional learning environment simply want the power to choose, and embrace the idea of their deaf children listening and speaking.

And it goes beyond an argument between adults. Some children prefer attending a school for the deaf, while others have no problem going to conventional schools. In Brooklyn, New York, where the school for the deaf is threatened to be closed due to state budget cuts, some students expressed apprehension and unhappiness about entering a school that does not focus on their disability. Amina Mahmood, a 14-year-old student of St. Francis DeSales, told the Daily News in March, 2011: 'If I had to go to a 'hearing' school, there would be no communication with the other kids. I'd feel very, very sad.'

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Indiana Mired in Debate

While the story of cuts affecting schools for the deaf are basically the same from state to state, perhaps no other has the type of controversy that Indiana faces.

In spring 2011 Governor Mitch Daniels appointed four members to the board of the Indiana School for the Deaf, two of whom are associated with Hear Indiana, a chapter of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (another's husband is a Hear Indiana board member). Hear Indiana is an organization that supports spoken language learning for deaf and hard of hearing students. The appointments have left some crying 'Foul!' and going as far as to say that it may indicate Indiana is choosing to side against A.S.L. supporters. Those who favor the appointments believe that it does nothing more than 'bring new perspective and ideas', as Governor Daniels spokeswoman Jane Jankowski told The New York Times in July.

A Hear Indiana press release stated that '80% (of all families) want their children to enjoy the full range of sounds and to be able to listen and speak.' Despite that statistic, Governor Daniels' office has asserted that there are no intentions to do away with the A.S.L. teaching method. But, as in other states, the educational budget cuts tend to bite deep into funding for institutions like the Indiana School for the Deaf. And public schools follow a listen and speak curriculum, not offering the option of A.S.L.

As in other states, there seems to be no easy answers for Indiana. Force deaf students into a learning environment they might not feel comfortable in? Take away parents' ability to choose between methods? Do away totally with the teaching of sign language? Rely solely on technology that might not always be as successful as advocates might claim?

Unfortunately, what it may all come down to is the fact that money talks, affecting even those who cannot hear it.

Learn about some noted deaf and hard of hearing figures who have impacted education and other areas in a past Education Insider blog celebrating Deaf History Month.

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