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Considerations in Educating Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing|
Kathee Mangan Christensen, Editor
kathee mangan christensen
—Alan Bennett, History Boys
My father was a teacher of the deaf. So was my mother. My first five years of life were spent in a house owned by the Michigan School for the Deaf and provided to our family as part of my father’s job as dean of boys. I can still remember the address of that house: 1661 Miller Road, Flint, Michigan, just down the hill from the primary unit where I played with the deaf students on the weekends. My first languages were acquired simultaneously. I used both spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL), although, at that time, the term ASL had not been coined. Simply put, I used the sign language. I learned to sign from signers and to speak from speakers. At an early age, I figured out which language to use through trial and error, along with careful observation. In my world, everyone signed and some spoke. I was never formally taught about Deaf culture; however, I did intuit several rules as a very young child. For example, around the age of 3 or 4, I figured out that when I answered the door, I signed first. If the person started speaking, then I spoke. At a residential school, I made the assumption that most people who came to our door would know sign language, whether they were deaf or not.
When I started kindergarten, I realized that my communication skills were unique and not particularly respected. One of my earliest memories is the face of my kindergarten teacher, who sternly told me that “we don’t use deaf-and-dumb hand signals here!” I’m sure I wondered, “Why not?” This was, indeed, my first experience with marginalization, albeit a unique variety. Much later, as a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a writer, an artist, a philosopher . . . it did not occur to me that I could parlay my natural lifestyle into a career. In retrospect, I believe that my kindergarten teacher must have provided an early challenge to what would be an enduring quest.
Serendipity played a role. During the week of my graduation from MacMurray College with a bachelor’s degree in English, my parents introduced me to Alice Streng, then head of the teacher-preparation program in education of the deaf at the University of Wisconsin. Alice had taught both of my parents in their undergraduate days at Milwaukee State Teachers College. In fact, in the days of posteconomic depression, she recruited my mother from theater and my father from prelaw into the deaf education program with the assurance that they would find meaningful and satisfying careers. Law and theater, in Alice’s opinion, were financially risky. Years later, she again used her considerable charm and intuition on me, also, offering me a full scholarship if I agreed to begin the deaf education program that fall. I canceled my plans to attend Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College that summer and instead packed up and moved to Milwaukee. Alice had trumped Robert Frost and my plans to become a writer. At the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, I joined eight white, hearing women in a master-of-science-degree program designed to teach deaf children to speak English. Literacy, it seemed, would follow speech. Sign language was not an approved part of the teacher-preparation program; however, most of my classmates were eager to learn it. The much-anticipated student-teaching experience at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf in Delavan was an incentive, and I was glad to help them out.
My near-native sign language ability was an asset to me in student teaching. My degree in English helped me to find parallels in signed and spoken languages and improvise ways to explain the nuances of English to my students through signs and visual support. I did not realize at the time that I was applying the techniques of bilingual education. It seemed instinctive . . . intuitive. Of course, only a person with fluency in both languages would be able to intuit this approach, and, in the 1960s, teacher preparation in education of the deaf was “English only,” even at Gallaudet. I was fortunate to be able to communicate with my students, with deaf faculty and community members, and with hearing professionals throughout my years as a teacher and professor. This, I believe, gave me the freedom to think about issues that were not part of my own teacher-preparation experience but were fundamental to success in the classroom and beyond. This is where I became concerned—in fact, fascinated—with the ways in which educational decisions were made, particularly at public residential schools for deaf students, the ethical considerations around these decisions, and the eventual ramifications for deaf individuals. This book is based on true-to-life ethical dilemmas that the other authors and I have encountered in several decades of work with children, youth, and adults who are deaf or hard of hearing.