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Language Rights of Deaf Children: Working within a Budget | Ecology of EducationEcology of Education

Language Rights of Deaf Children: Working within a Budget

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It is hard to imagine that a person’s rights are only granted when there is money to pay for them.  Seriously, how would it go if people were given the freedom of religion only if there happened to be enough money to build the churches and pay for the preachers?  When times are tough, there are fewer churches and less freedom to practice the religion of choice.  People would cry foul.

However, it is a fact of life for deaf children in the United States, because they are not afforded their right to have access to language while in school.  Or that access is only granted when there is money available to pay for professionals such as teachers or interpreters.  You may wonder at whether language truly is a right, so I will show you the importance of language within our society, why language is a right, how deaf people and children are affected, and finally the impact of economics on whether language access is granted.

Learning sign language

Two girls signing APPLE.
Photo courtesy of Dave Fulmer

Role of Language

Language is ubiquitous in our society.  You would not be able to read or understand this blog if you did not have language (specifically English).  Communication would be greatly stunted without language – chatting with friends, calling loved ones, writing emails, reading books, shopping for food, tweeting.  All of these things require different usages of language, and we do it daily, and almost without thinking.

Given the importance of language in performing our daily activities of living, it is no wonder that much attention is paid to the development of language.  Neuroscience researchers tell us that the brain’s capacity to acquire a first language begins in the womb and continues until around age 12.  If a first language is not acquired by the time puberty begins, the chances of acquiring that first language are reduced significantly.  So younger is better when it comes to language acquisition.  It is not enough just to be exposed to language, the child must be given opportunities to interact with others and experiment with the rules of the language in order to truly acquire it.

Language as a Right

In understanding language as a basic human right, we must first explore what rights are.  In the United States, we often think of rights in terms of our Bill of Rights in the Constitution.  Those are the ethical and moral imperatives by which we live.  In fact, the word “right” derives from the Old English riht- which means “just, good, fair, proper, fitting, straight.”

We also hear discussions of the right to life, the right to vote, right to strike, and rights of animals (among others).  All of these rights are founded up on the view that some group is allowed or owed something.  Advocates for rights of any kind are supporting ideas and actions that they view as just.

It is not surprising, then, that language is viewed as a right.  Even the United Nations declared that people, primarily minorities, have a right to use the language of their culture, and that that right should be protected.  Language is a fundamental aspect of a person’s identity and culture.  Who would argue that it is just or good to deny anyone access to language?  Especially when it is so critical to thriving in today’s techno-society.  Yet, it is something that happens every day to deaf people, and particularly deaf children, and it has a name: audism.

Deaf Children and Language

Deaf children, by nature of their hearing status, have limited or no access to auditory input.  That includes spoken language, such as English.  That means that they need to have access through other channels, and since we cannot really smell or taste English, we are left with visual means.  As American Sign Language (ASL) is completely visual, it is the obvious choice for ensuring that deaf children develop a complete language.

Although ASL seems like the natural choice for ensuring that deaf children have access to a complete language, there are still many barriers being faced both inside and outside of the education system.  The first is that there is a stigma that ASL and spoken English cannot coexist.  There is a tension that exists for deaf people around this, particularly when cochlear implants are part of the discussion.  Deaf people treasure their culture and language, and the cochlear implant is viewed by some as a threat to that language and culture.  Children with cochlear implants are frequently mainstreamed and are monolingual.

Another barrier to providing deaf children with access to ASL is the hearing status of their families.  Approximately 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents.  It is highly unlikely that those parents are fluent in ASL.  To provide access to ASL, the parents would have to learn the language.  Not only that, since the language window is so short, parents must begin learning the language almost immediately upon learning their child is deaf and while simultaneously grieving that their child is not hearing.  A tall order for parents who are struggling to come to terms with their child’s deafness.

Attitudes toward sign language and bilingualism present a significant barrier in the United States.  We have a long, sordid history that actively works against bilingualism, because there is a fear that if children are bilingual their development will be delayed.  In fact, there is research suggesting that bilingual children (regardless of language) demonstrate a greater flexibility of cognitive ability than monolingual children (see also this New York Times article.

Despite these barriers, parents do choose to learn ASL and to support their child’s language development by choosing programs that use ASL and English to support language development.  However, these programs are in trouble.

Finances and Rights

Schools for the deaf have a long and embattled history in this country.  Deaf people treasure the role of the Deaf Schools in their lives, as the Deaf Schools provide social and academic access in ASL.  Many schools are residential, so Deaf children and youth have almost constant access to people who are able to communicate with them.

This level of education and support is not cheap, and this is where the battle comes in.  Schools for the deaf serve a very small minority of children (less than 1%), but they concentrate services all in one school.  However, this hasn’t kept schools for the deaf from coming under fire. For example, the New York Times did a piece in 2011 considering the role of state schools for the deaf.  As part of this topic, they invited several presenters who focused on several authors presenting different sides of the issue, one of which being financial.

Providing an individualized education is not cheap, and that is particularly true when the child needs significant support just to access the general education curriculum (as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004).  However, there are public schools in the Mid-Atlantic region who have cut services to the point that deaf children mainstreamed with hearing children no longer receive itinerant services from a licensed teacher of the deaf.  Nor are they being provided with an interpreter, even though they are learning to sign.

In order to provide interpreters, schools either need to hire full-time interpreters or they contract with an agency.  Either way, for one interpreter, the cost is in the tens of thousands per year.  Multiplied by the number of interpreters that are needed.  Add to the mix that interpreters should meet some type of minimum qualifications, as they are the link between the student’s native language and the academic content taught by the teacher.  I say “should” because there are still many states that do not even set a minimal standard of proficiency for educational interpreters (see also: About.com’s article and a USA Today article).  Without any requirements, a person who’s taken one sign language course could be (and has been) hired to be the sole access point to the curriculum for a deaf child.  That would be like you taking one semester of Farsi then going into a school and interpreting for a child all day.  What kind of education is that child receiving?

I understand the need to consider fiscally responsible practices, but at the same time, deaf children have a right to access the same instruction and curriculum as their hearing peers using the language of their choice.  The question is: do we value each and every child enough to provide them with the opportunity to succeed?  Or is money more important?

Images: 
Hands: NPR
Girls communicating: Wikimedia
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Author:Christina Yuknis

Christina Yuknis, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Education Department at Gallaudet University. She worked in both adult education and as a middle school teacher before pursuing her doctorate. She now specializes in Special Education Policy; Literacy; Deaf Students with Disabilities. She is also an ASCD Emerging Leader, Class of 2011.