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At odds over deaf education

Parents and experts disagree over the best approach to early instruction for deaf children

Supporters of a controversial proposal to overhaul education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students rally outside Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on May 10. Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/Photo by Irfan Khan

At odds over deaf education

Los Angeles Unified School District board members voted unanimously last month to approve a measure recognizing American Sign Language (ASL) as a separate language and establishing a deaf and hard-of-hearing department. The decision makes ASL education the default for deaf and hard-of-hearing early education services in the country’s second-largest school district.

But the move has stirred up disagreement among families. The Deaf community has long been divided over technological assistance such as cochlear implants that can eliminate the need to learn ASL. Under the new LAUSD policy, all deaf children 3 years old and younger will be provided with instruction in ASL and spoken English unless their parents opt out.

Advocates for and against the provision agree that parents should be able to choose the option that best fits their family’s needs. But some worry parents aren’t always given all the information they need.

LEAD-K, an advocacy group promoting language development for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, applauded LAUSD’s move. The organization’s public relations director, Julie Rems-Smario, said parents are often uninformed about ASL options. “That opportunity for spoken language is still at the table,” she said through an ASL interpreter. “We’re simply now providing the opportunity for ASL, as well.”

Similarly, Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, supported the measure as expanding options for deaf children. “Not every deaf child can learn to speak or listen, but every deaf child can learn to sign,” he told me in an email.

Parents have more than one option for teaching their deaf children language skills. ASL provides deaf individuals with a gesture-based language with its own grammar and style, while hearing aids and cochlear implants can provide greater access to sound for developing spoken language. (A cochlear implant involves a surgically placed device with a microphone and processor connected to the deaf person’s cochlear nerve inside the ear.)

Emily Burke and her husband, who live outside California and are both deaf, do not have cochlear implants or hearing aids, but they did opt for a cochlear implant for their deaf daughter when she was 23 months old.

“At the end of the day we felt like, ‘You know, this would provide full access,’” Burke said through a sign language interpreter. She added that her daughter’s earlier exposure to ASL had already given her language. The daughter, who is now 13, wears cochlear implants at school but often opts for signing at home. “She had a language first,” Burke said. “I think that’s a big foundation.”

But American Cochlear Implant Alliance executive director Donna Sorkin worries the LAUSD decision to make ASL part of the default educational approach will result in some parents not receiving all the information about cochlear implants, a procedure she received at age 39 in 1992. “I’ve sat on the opposite side of the table with parents, and then the educators on the other side many, many times, and it’s intimidating for families,” she said. “They’re not sure what their rights are, they think they’re getting the best advice possible. And that’s, unfortunately, not always the case.”

Sorkin acknowledged that deaf students historically faced unhelpful and even discriminatory practices. Starting in the late 1800s, some educators advocated for oralism, or the practice of teaching deaf students to speak and read lips, instead of signing. “There’s a lot of frustrated people who remember what that was like years ago,” she said, adding that technological devices are much better and deaf children are being identified earlier. Sorkin authored a 2013 study that found that among U.S. children who qualified for a cochlear implant—meaning hearing aids did not work well for them—only about half of parents opted for the surgery.

Sorkin worries that a default program like the one in LAUSD will overlook children’s unique needs. She also referenced a 2017 study published in the journal Pediatrics that reported that deaf children who received cochlear implants made greater gains in learning to speak if they had not used ASL.

(Rosenblum pointed out that two of the study’s researchers worked at institutions with contracts to Advanced Bionics, a cochlear implant company. He added that another study listed some methodological concerns with the Pediatrics study.)

Megan Huseman’s husband and 7-year-old daughter are both deaf and use ASL. The Husemans opted not to do a cochlear implant for their daughter. “If, in the future, she does want one, and she’s old enough to make that decision and understand the benefits and consequences of a surgery like that, then we will support whatever she decides to do,” Huseman said.

Huseman added that the LAUSD program could be especially helpful with giving early language access to young deaf children whose hearing parents don’t sign—a skill that could benefit them even if their families opt for assistive technology: “Even on your best day, when you take the cochlear implant off … and you don’t have access to sign language, then you don’t have access [to language].”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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