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Can Mainstream Schools Meet the Diverse Needs of Students?

Can Mainstream Schools Meet the Diverse Needs of Students?

Ymazingly Smart

Can Mainstream Schools Meet the Diverse Needs of Students?

In the year 2016, one might assume that education for those who are d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing has advanced to the point where deaf young people in America are receiving the same level of education as their hearing peers. One might assume that federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does enough to protect deaf/HoH children’s right to expand their minds while developing valuable cultural and practical skills in a safe, productive environment. One might have faith that the education system of our modern society has evolved to accommodate the diverse needs of an increasingly diverse population.

Upon closer observation, however, we see that education programs for deaf and otherwise disabled individuals in this country are in an unfortunate state, and in even further jeopardy as more children are enrolled in mainstream schools that are underfunded, lacking in support, and simply not equipped for people with specialized educational requirements. To aid in the progress of our multicultural society, we all must become aware of the institutionalized injustices that perpetuate oppression, and then we must work together to change these structures— from both the top down, and from the bottom up. Before people begin working toward a solution, it is crucial to first identify the root of the problem.

Building a Solid Foundation
Access to education is an issue that most people who are deaf/ HoH begin to face long before they set foot in a school. Since 9 out of 10 deaf children are born to hearing families, these kids often begin their journey without acquiring basic communication skills, as their families don’t use sign language.

Deaf babies who do not have access to a signed language cannot easily articulate their wants and needs with caregivers, and therefore they can become quickly frustrated. Falling behind their hearing peers in early linguistic comprehension causes many deaf youths to face a disadvantage right from the start. This is where schools for the Deaf can make all the difference by offering young deaf children the support they need to develop their language and literacy skills in a specifically structured setting.

“For over 130 years, the Deaf community have been fighting for Deaf Education to be optimized for each Deaf child, but the medical and educational system have consistently failed the Deaf children because of lack of full access to language acquisition,” explains Julie Rems-Smario, Founding Executive Director of DeafHope, President of California Association of the Deaf, and co-founder of the grassroots organization Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids (LEAD-K). “It is not the ‘deafness’ that causes the child to be language deprived. It is the lack of full access to language acquisition, especially during first two years, that causes the Deaf child to be language-deprived.”

Both scientific research and personal anecdotes have shown the positive impact of Deaf schools. In this environment, whether it is a day school or a residential school, children who are deaf are more likely to have their emotional, social, and educational needs met by a qualified staff. In Deaf schools, children who are deaf are able to connect with others who share the experience of deafness. They will be exposed to more deaf role models and/or potential mentors, and may themselves become a mentor for another deaf young person. Immersed in a Deaf cultural institution, children can develop a strong self-identity and sense of pride in something they may have once felt ashamed of.

“Deaf schools are not just an educational option, but are the only beneficial placement for many deaf children,” states the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) position statement on Schools for the Deaf. “Deaf schools, an integral part of American history, have not only received quality education but also benefited from the fostering of its culture, heritage, and language through such essential institutions. Schools for the deaf, including charter schools founded to serve deaf children, are uniquely capable of providing the necessary visual learning environment and the ideal conditions for language development for deaf children.”Can Mainstream Schools Meet the Diverse Needs of Students?

There is ample evidence to support American Sign Language (ASL)/ English bilingualism as an optimal solution for deaf children, especially those in hearing families. Research shows higher educational outcomes for deaf children who have access to visual language, even those who are being raised to vocalize or who have a Cochlear Implant. The benefits of Deaf schools are undeniable, yet these programs are seeing budget cuts and lowered enrollment numbers all across the country as parents are steered toward mainstreamed education options. There are currently around 100 schools for the deaf in the United States. Since the year 2000, seven state schools for the deaf have closed down— most of these either pre-K-12 or K-12 programs.

Why Deaf Schools?
“Placing every deaf child in their respective neighborhood school is not practical, economical, or educationally beneficial,” asserts the NAD position statement. It continues to explain that mainstream schools with few deaf students tend to lack the appropriate resources. “In many states, there are large geographical areas with a small deaf student population, making schools for the deaf a cost-effective means to optimal educational services.”

When students are enrolled in a mainstream school, they are entitled to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with teachers and administrators that is designed to meet their needs; this may include interpreters and note-takers in the classroom. While IEPs are great in theory, in practice they tend to lack resources and long term support, failing to offer deaf/HoH kids an equal opportunity to receive an education. According to Tawny Holmes, Education Policy Counsel at the NAD, recent years have seen downsizing in education programs for deaf children across the board, further isolating already isolated youths in the mainstream system.

“[There has been] a huge shift to ‘solitaire’ education,” Holmes explains. “By that I mean, not only do schools for the deaf have declining numbers, but many large mainstream programs are closing. So that means an increased number of deaf/hard of hearing students are isolated in their public school- ‘the only deaf student in the school.’ This is confirmed by the Gallaudet Research Institute [survey] results.”

Deaf Education Needs More Deaf Leadership
Mainstream education programs are severely lacking in a deaf perspective, and this has been a major source of oppression since the Milan Conference in 1880, when a group of hearing individuals decided the unfortunate course of deaf education for the next 100+ years. In this modern era, however, deaf people have the technology to connect and organize like never before. We are currently witnessing a major push-back against hearing parties making decisions for the deaf community, with assertive advocates utilizing new communication tools to rally support for proactive deaf-led reform. They are sharing their own experiences with the families of deaf children, alongside supporting research, to help secure better opportunities for generations to come.

Community organizations are emerging as important resources and beacons of hope for the families of children who are deaf. By providing easily accessible information from a deaf perspective, these organizations hope to demystify deafness and raise awareness about issues that impact the community. One of the most important issues being a child’s human right to a language they can use. Without access to language, a child’s learning will inevitably be delayed. Deciding it was time for a new course of action, in 2011 Rems Smario and Farina envisioned a legislative plan for addressing language deprivation. They invited a group of a group of stakeholders in California including parents, educators, and community members to cultivate the LEAD-K movement.

Within just nine months, LEAD-K made a strong legislative impact by passing laws in three states. California became the first state to pass the language acquisition accountability law, SB 210, which was authored by Senator Galgiani and signed into law by Governor Brown in October 2015. Kansas and Hawaii’s LEAD-K bills were signed into law during Spring 2016. During September 2016, Deaf representatives from 23 states are flew to Sacramento to receive LEAD-K legislative training, led by the LEAD-K campaign director.

Meeting Diverse Educational Needs
Early intervention creates a strong foundation, but education does not stop in Kindergarten. How do we help the deaf kids already in classrooms throughout the country? The needs of students who are deaf/ HoH can best be met through a variety of different educational strategies, some of which could very easily be implemented to the benefit of all students. Recently Gary Behm, Director at the Center on Access Technology Innovation Laboratory at National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), offered to explain one effective classroom strategy that is utilized for deaf students at NTID.

“This program is specifically targeting less lecture in classrooms and more hands-on work and discussion. Teachers will record themselves doing a lecture and students can watch the lecture at home, then they go back to classroom and focus on hands-on aspects. The program is called Flipped Course,” said Behm. “In the DeafTEC program, the Flipped Course lectures themselves are deaf professors from all different fields. Students are using those videos for lectures, and then using classroom for discussion. There are many older deaf teachers that are retired, so we are trying to use their skills.”

Through raising awareness, educating, and offering valid platforms to deaf individuals to share their experiences, hopefully we can soon see a shift in the educational landscape that offers more fruitful opportunities to those who are deaf. After more than 130 years of oppression, deaf advocates are reclaiming the reigns and spearheading much needed educational reform measures. By dispelling stereotypes and falsehoods surrounding ASL and language acquisition, deaf advocates strive to break the cycle of oppression that keeps deaf individuals out of classrooms, boardrooms, and legislative positions.

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