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American Annals of the Deaf

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Access: Multiple Avenues for Deaf People

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Indeed, as we will detail below, the notions of LRE and FAPE, as determined by IDEA, are in direct conflict with the historical foundations and values of Deaf culture and the communities that support it.

H i s t o r y  o f  t h e  D e a f  a n d  D e a f  C u l t u r e

In the above section, we have articulated that those who identify themselves as culturally Deaf do not consider themselves to be disabled. However, to those who may not be well-versed in the cultural values and norms of American Deaf culture and the Deaf communities on which it thrives, the idea that deafness is not disabling may be puzzling (for details on Deaf cultures and communities, see Padden 1980). Thus, it is important to give some background and information on the history of the American Deaf community. We will suggest that the ideas and practices put forth by IDEA and LRE are inimical to Deaf culture because the law, as written, discourages the accumulation of a critical mass of Deaf students in any one educational setting. This critical mass is essential to meeting the social and linguistic needs of the individual Deaf students. Yet, because Deaf people have been misplaced under the disability umbrella of IDEA (instead of being seen as a linguistic and cultural minority), Deaf students in K–12 education in the United States are now scattered throughout programs on the LRE continuum instead of in classrooms composed of their true peers—other non-disabled Deaf students.

Deaf communities across the country comprise and feed into a collective sense of community into which Deaf people can travel with relative ease because they share common cultural values of deafness. Those who are considered to be part of Deaf culture “behave as Deaf people do, use the language of Deaf people, and share the beliefs of Deaf people toward themselves and other people who are not Deaf” (Padden 1980, 5). In essence, culturally Deaf people embrace two important things: their language—ASL—and the ability to use and express their language in social and educational settings that foster the use of this language.

Prior to the establishment of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817, deaf people in the United States were scattered and had no specific and universally applied mechanism for education. Indeed, most deaf people lived in relative isolation from one another. Some families who had the means could send their deaf children abroad for education (Jankowski 1997, 20). Otherwise, with the exception of the Martha’s Vineyard community, where there was a large deaf population (Groce 1985), there was no one way or place where deaf children would be educated or congregate.

The inception of the Deaf community occurred within a historical context that saw many improvements in the lives of the American people. Between 1815 and 1845 in the United States, “institutions displaced the traditional role of the family and transcended familiar, local authorities” for deaf people (Mattingly 1987a, 46). Based on the efforts of multiple benefactors, including Thomas Gallaudet, the first deaf school was established (now known as the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, CT). This school was a “locus for the energies of many disparate individuals, of resources from many locales,” a factor that strongly influenced the formation and future of Deaf culture (Mattingly 1987b, 47).

Historically, the dominant group in society has had the rhetorical power to construct and label those who are “abnormal” as compared to those who are the norm, or “normal.” The group that assumes the normal role then has rhetorical power to label and dominate the abnormal for its own benefit and to promote its own agenda (Foucault 1970). This kind of oppressor/oppressed dynamic also applies to the historical interactions among deaf and hearing individuals in caring for and educating deaf people. Deaf people were sent to residential schools (then known as asylums) as a means of keeping deaf people in the periphery of American society. In their isolation, deaf people were also given their own sort of autonomy in residential schools. Within the school community, deaf people were able to create a new “normal” that enabled them to be autonomous and empowered.

In these schools, deaf people relied on sign language for communication. The Deaf community revered the sign language (now known as ASL) that hearing people proclaimed to be abnormal communication. Indeed, sign language became the common bond among Deaf people, and the Deaf school was the locus for academic and cultural instruction. Jankowski (1997) explains that

. . . while for most people school is primarily a place to secure an education, for Deaf people, school means much more. For many Deaf people, school is where they meet other Deaf people, often for the first time; at school they develop socialization patterns and friendships that frequently last throughout their lifetimes; there they meet spouses, acquire a language that accommodates their visual orientation, and become a part of a culture that extends beyond the school years. (19)
Jankowski (1997) summarizes how fundamental the Deaf school is to the Deaf community and Deaf culture as a whole by stating, “The educational system [for Deaf people] in its early years, offered an opportunity for Deaf people to build a community, and eventually became the mechanism through which the Deaf social movement would thrive” (19).
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