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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf People Around the World: Educational and Social Perspectives

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The national discussion of integration and inclusion focuses on the concept of “the student’s own environment.” In an unusual policy decision, two apparently opposite interpretations were incorporated, one emphasizing the deaf student’s “own environment” as being the local municipality school and the neighborhood as “home,” and the other emphasizing the student’s “own environment” as a place where there was access to and participation with other deaf students and adults using Norwegian Sign Language (NSL).

Students who had acquired NSL as their first language were given the right to receive their education through sign language. The National Curriculum introduced new syllabi for students educated according to Section 2-6: NSL, Norwegian for deaf pupils, English for deaf pupils, and Drama and Rhythmics for deaf pupils ( Kirke-, Utdannings- og Forskningsdepartementet [The Royal Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs], 1998).

The Norwegian government enacted other initiatives to enhance the status and the competence of NSL use in schools and in families with deaf children. Some universities and university colleges developed programs to meet the regular teachers’ needs for competence in NSL, and a similar program was established for hearing parents with deaf children. Parents are entitled to 40 weeks of training in NSL through the first 16 years of their child’s life. Although the legislation gives all students in Norway the right to attend a school in their neighborhood, it also gives deaf students a right to education through the medium of NSL. The student’s level of hearing loss, whether moderate, severe, or profound, does not have any effect on the legal right to education under Section 2-6 in the Act of Education. However, deaf students do not have a legal right to education within a school for the deaf. Students following the national syllabi for the deaf therefore have to alternate between two different schools: the local municipality school and a school at a resource center for deaf students where they spend time each year.

In 2001–02, approximately one third of deaf students attended their local municipality school while the remaining two thirds went to special schools or classes for deaf students, either within a regular municipality school or at a resource center. When a student is educated according to the legislative provisions for the deaf, the school receives additional teacher resources to accommodate the need for communication in NSL. These resources can be used to provide two teachers for a classroom or to lower the class teacher-to-pupil ratio with a smaller class size. These decisions are made at regional and school levels according to their traditions, values, and objectives.

Two recent studies have examined the outcomes of these developments. First, Hyde, Ohna and Hjulstad (2006) reported on learning and communication interactions in three classroom structures: (a) two teachers, one with competence in NSL; (b) one teacher with an NSL interpreter; and (c) a single teacher who was competent in both spoken Norwegian and NSL. A key finding of the study was that, in two of the class-teacher structures examined, there was evidence of parallel discourses. Analyses of the interactive patterns and of language and modality use indicated that the deaf student and his or her signing teacher or interpreter communicated independently of what the rest of the class was doing. This pattern resulted in the deaf student’s exclusion from some of the communication events in the classroom.

Hjulstad and Kristoffersen (2007) are conducting a 5-year study to examine the communication interactions of 24 deaf children ages 3 to 11 years, who are fitted with a cochlear implant and are being educated in both rural and urban areas in Norway. The educational placements of the students are mainly in local schools, but some are in schools or classes for the deaf. Most have access to bilingual education. Hjulstad and Kristoffersen report a very high level of heterogeneity among the classrooms, the communication environments and resources, and the linguistic proficiencies of the students. Importantly, even though both languages (Norwegian and NSL) were found to be in use in the communication contexts observed, teachers often reflected a lack of understanding of the objectives and processes of bilingual education, particularly where sign language use was seen as a consequence of “cochlear implant failure.” These authors concluded by pointing to the great diversity among the communication environments, local resources, teacher competencies, and student outcomes in the classrooms studied. Hjulstad and Kristoffersen proposed that there is little evaluation of outcomes and that, at present, there is no set of general principles or guidelines informing schools and classrooms about facilitating a quality education for pupils with a cochlear implant, in either monolingual or bilingual programs.

Norway is an interesting and seemingly complex case. The education system for deaf students remains both centralized and uniform in its national legislation and policies, but quite differentiated in terms of the interpretation of these characteristics at local levels, with elements of both of these dimensions evident in the findings of two studies cited.

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