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Ethical Considerations in Educating Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
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In an issue of the Ethics in Science and Technology Center Update (Spring, 2007, p. 4), Dr. Michael Kalichman wrote, “It is our personal responsibility to engage in an ongoing effort to identify ethical challenges and approach them through transparent and inclusive discussions. The answers we find will not always be complete or satisfactory, but the alternative (to not try at all) would be itself unethical.”

These words guide the content of this book. The overall goal is to promote constructive conversations around current issues and explore ways in which the diverse needs of individual deaf students may become the primary focus of educational decision making.

Reaching consensus on a definition of the term ethics as it applies to the education of individuals who are deaf involves consideration of diverse perspectives within a variety of situations. Deaf people, their families and social circles, along with professionals from the fields of education, medicine, communication, and culture, constitute the primary circles that overlap in a discussion of what is “best” for a given person in a specific situation at a particular time in that person’s life. Ethical decision making is not a static concept. Rather, it is an evolving phenomenon that is dependent upon situations that occur in contemporary society. Past practice can inform or guide current decision making; however, an ethical decision takes into account the facts of the moment and issues of fairness and justice in a certain situation. Although efforts are made to achieve consensus, those who are involved in decision making may not agree on what is “best.” Without guidance, decision-making efforts may result in what may be labeled a “standoff,” effectively postponing important decisions until one constituent group “wins” the debate. This, of course, results in the feeling among other constituent groups that they have “lost” in the effort to secure what they have advocated.

In order to create a more positive decision-making environment, we must have a flexible working framework to use as a guide during discussions. The goal of such a framework is to respect multiple points of view and to negotiate without condemnation. The basis of the framework proposed in this text is an adaptation of situation ethics, which can be defined as a system in which acts are judged within their contexts instead of by categorical principles (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010.) This approach incorporates the view that ethical decision making applies to whole situations with varying features. That is, rather than weeding out what some consider to be “wrong,” the dominant approach becomes one of considering how various features interact in a situation and then determining what is most helpful in that situation. Given a variety of options, what is the best option now? How can we engage a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” mind-set when making complex decisions that have profound implications for the lives of individuals? The objectives of this book are to raise questions about current educational practice, present a way to apply an ethical framework to educational decision making, and provide a catalyst for further professional dialogue with regard to a perceived disconnect between an existing human condition and pedagogy.

Why ethics? Simply because little attention has been given to accountability in educational decision making up to this point. This text requires the readers to step back from their “professional personae,” take a hard look at what is happening in the education of deaf children, and address the following questions: What social footprint is being left for those that follow us? What is being done effectively in our field? Where are the gaps? Are we, as professionals, maintaining high ethical standards? At the end of the day, what is being accomplished that makes us proud?

A close look at the contemporary education of deaf students reveals a field that is fraught with irony. A few “What the - ?” examples come to mind:

1. Hearing infants, young children, and their families are encouraged to learn American Sign Language so that they can communicate with each other early on and avoid the frustration that lack of oral communication can incur. Signing babies are “trendy.” Speech-language pathologists who know basic ASL are among those who teach “baby signs” to hearing families for use with infants, toddlers, and “late talkers.” Deaf infants and toddlers, however, are frequently denied early access to ASL and are placed in oral/aural programs that focus on oral communication only.

2. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was designed, in part, to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities are protected, to provide for the education of all children with disabilities, and to assess the effects of educating these children. Despite legislation intended to address the needs of the overall special education population, more and more profoundly and congenitally deaf children are, in fact, being left out and left behind with regard to natural, spontaneous peer socialization and accessible communication with hearing peers and teachers. According to Mitchell and Karchmer (2006), 19% of deaf children in mainstream settings are “solitaires”; that is, they are the only deaf student in the school, and deaf children continue to be among the groups considered at risk for failure on state-mandated assessments.

3. Medical insurance may pay for cochlear implant (CI) surgery; however, there is little or no financial support for the years of follow-up therapy required for young CI users in order for them to benefit maximally from the technology.

4. Hearing children of Deaf adults (coda) who know much about life and communication in both Deaf and hearing cultures are often marginalized in both. Some codas report feeling discriminated against (as young children) by hearing people because of their animated use of sign language while at the same time being made to feel “different” in their family situation. One young hearing woman described the heartbreak she felt when her deaf sister told her that she could never, never understand “what it means to be deaf.” Even though the hearing woman was a fluent signer, a staunch participant in culturally Deaf events, and a certified ASL interpreter, she at times felt that she did not fit in. I had similar experiences as an early signer, although I was not a coda. In my opinion, some of the best graduate students I have taught are codas. The intuitions they share about culture and communication in their bilingual worlds have been valuable additions to graduate seminar discussions.

5. Schools for children who have difficulty acquiring their native language (spoken English) emphasize speech-language pathology. No parallel program exists to provide ASL services to those deaf children who have difficulty acquiring their native or most accessible language, ASL. This is true despite the fact that some deaf children have additional special needs that make oral communication impossible and signed communication a challenge.

6. Real-time captioning is available at most large meetings and other functions for deaf and hearing audiences. The captions, however, are keyed by a person listening to English and result in some errors due to homonyms and other listening obfuscations. One recent example involved a speaker who said “hide out,” while the stenographer typed “high doubt.” Persons who use English as a second language often need to go through an additional translation process in order to access the meaning of presentations in real-time captions.

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