Hearing schools. We don't talk about them much, but what happens in the hearing community and the discourse that affects their schools strongly affects schools and politics in the Deaf community. We often forget that, focusing instead on Deaf schools, which are all bilingual to some extent (even many oral programs use sign language at some point!) In fact, this discussion applies to the widest possible range of Deaf children—since even programs in mainstream schools are affected by the political discourse about hearing schools. In the New York Times recently, articles from five scholars, only one a Deaf person themselves, attempted to discuss Deaf schools and whether they are needed. Let's talk about three ways that hearing community politics may be behind a recent series of articles from the New York Times and affect how hearing people perceive Deaf schools. In each case, we'll point out how a political issue in the American educational discussion affects the Deaf educational discussion—whether we realize it or not.
In the New York Times recently, articles from five scholars, only one was a Deaf person themselves, attempted to discuss Deaf schools and whether they are needed.
There's anti-language action in the hearing community, for example, often disguised by cost-cutting concerns. When so many hearing administrators in hearing schools are against including Spanish in their school curriculae, why are we surprised when there are similar arguments popping up against keeping institutions which, by and large, use bilingual strategies to teach, in fact in many cases demand those strategies? We Deaf Americans might not consider ASL foreign-but the attitude of English-speaking Americans insists on it. Two driving forces in American education - one firmly determined to maintain English as the 'only' national language, another determined to cut public school funding by eliminating everything "unnecessary" in school curriculae—have combined to get rid of foreign languages as unnecessary. In New York, for example, schools have eliminated foreign language Regents exams—and will not work to save those exams. In the last two or three decades, many of our protests and fights with Deaf schools and programs have been about the need to choose individuals who are both bilingual as well as bicultural to run bilingual deaf schools-while many public schools don't even offer foreign languages any longer. Ironically, considering the series that began this discussion, another discussion on the New York Times debate site criticized the American lack of rigor with regard to learning foreign languages. In complex issues, there's many areas people can create disconnect. We are a more multicultural society these days, but we're teaching less foreign language.
In hearing communities, there's been a huge issue where redistricting's concerned. Politicans get elected and change districts to beef up their voting numbers—but then, responding to their consituency, they change other kinds of districts. By setting up districts, politicians can manipulate the configurations of voting neighborhoods (making an area seem more Republican by moving the district to include more Republicans, for example.) They can also make beneficial changes to make sure schools have an equal number of students, for example—or to destroy powerful school-backing populations. In New York, for example, Deaf schools, schools for the Blind, and other programs have been threatened with closure, which would isolate Deaf children in local individual districts. Often the intent behind these decisions seems to be focused on breaking down communities. When schools funded by the 4201 law in New York saw their funding threatened, parents, students and educators came together to fight for their schools—and politicians often don't like such opposition. Oral programs to ASL-programs, it didn't matter; all manner of bilingual schools came together in support of each other. We see this happening in many places and with many groups (redistricting often happens for racial reasons) but we often forget how mainstreaming can break up the community surrounding Deaf schools and programs—and wind up disempowering parents, students, and teachers who work with Deaf people.
...we often forget how mainstreaming can break up the community surrounding Deaf schools and programs—and wind up disempowering parents, students, and teachers who work with Deaf people.
How about charter schools? Instead of getting government money to improve curriculae, schools are encouraged to leave the public sector and ask Coca Cola to sponsor their school (in exchange for making their kids drink more soda!) So why are we surprised when Deaf schools are attacked by politically conservative writers for being too expensive? They think ANY school is too expensive! (Maybe it's time for Deaf schools to be sponsored—by Purple.)
These are three issues out of many. But it shows why Dr. Ladd's concept of Deafhood is important. Deafhood forced me to place our school's issues in the context of issues happening elsewhere in this country. If we don't look at Deaf schools in the context of what's happening with hearing schools, we're going to miss a lot of the backstory. Just saying that hearing people are against ASL makes no sense, especially in light of research and the number of successful, intelligent, and fluently bilingual or multilingual Deaf people. There's other forces at work—and we ignore them at our peril.
Our response to a recent set of New York Times articles, as a community, rested on anger and frustration. This might have been because they included no Deaf people who are educators or Deaf people who've gone to Deaf schools— and presumably know why they exist! Those articles came from outsiders—not insiders. It would be tantamount to asking six men and a housewife why women should go to college. Of course they all responded negatively-especially when people brought up cost! Nobody could deny that well-paid teachers with job security would be a great thing for Deaf schools, for any kid, that we should try to create the best environment. More books, more technology? Fantastic! But hearing people don't give these things to hearing children; why should we expect them to give more to Deaf kids? As Josh Swiller notes, the kids are gonna have a hard time of it anyway! We should just accept their suffering is OK—just like we accept the suffering of hearing children who are gay, disabled, overweight, bullied... Right.
No school that has that kind of dismissive philosophy can do a good job—no teacher. Imagine a teacher who ignored a kid coming to class with bruises—and when questioned, said "Well, people get hit! Better they learn to deal with it!" But the New York Times didn't include any school teachers in that series of articles. When you work as an educator, you continually try to make life better for your kids, even if it's just by understanding they struggle with math. But the Times did what much of the debate in education in America does: it ignored teachers. Not one school teacher who works with Deaf kids was consulted in the writing of those articles. Here's my modest proposal: let's talk for once about how to spend more on all our kids, instead of focusing on inventing reasons to cut the little we do give.
ABOUT JOSEPH SANTINI
Joseph Santini is a writer, artist, teacher and activist in the New York City area. A graduate of Bristol University, he has studied under Dr. Paddy Ladd and written, filmed and drawn on Deaf issues, education and social issues for many years. His work has been published in the New York Times, been seen on several blogs, and he was named Best Emerging Artist at the Superfest Film Festival for the short film "...let us spell it out for you" encouraging support for Deaf arts. Follow his news tweets @jrscoyote.