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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Educating Deaf Students: Global Perspectives

Des Power and Greg Leigh, Editors

Part One
Contemporary Issues for all Learners

Reviewing the Past, Assessing the Present,
and Projecting the Future

Robert R. Davila

Deaf education, centuries after its recorded beginning in Europe, is still struggling to find answers to many of the challenges facing deaf persons. Even so, this same system of education gave me the opportunities to learn English as a second language, acquire speech in English, obtain a quality education, and develop into a self-sufficient, productive, and independent adult. Clearly, in my case, becoming deaf was not the calamity that it is in many families. The world’s systems serving deaf persons have been incredibly successful in some cases, but, unfortunately, unsuccessful in many others. The question is “How can we be successful with even larger numbers of students?”

The Traditional System Has Served Long and Well

For most of its history, deaf education’s dominant goal has been teaching deaf children to process spoken and written language accurately so they can interact successfully with the world around them (Scouten, 1984). While this time-honored, but elusive, goal remains the raison d’ętre of our profession, we are beginning to realize that such a narrow scope is insufficient for the broader purpose of preparing deaf men and women for participation in the global economy of the 21st century. The past 40 years have seen dramatic change and progress resulting in the empowerment of many deaf persons and improvement in the quality of their lives. These gains are linked to expanded educational opportunities resulting in access to new employment fields and increased awareness and acceptance of deaf and hard of hearing persons within the larger community.

At the time I lost my hearing and began my formal education in English, approximately 80% of deaf children in the United States attended residential schools. The school I attended was typical of such institutions at the time. The communication policy in the lower elementary grades was strictly oral. Only when children entered the middle grades, at about age 12, were the restrictions eased, although many classes remained oral because the teachers could not or would not learn sign language. This is not to suggest that the children did not sign. They did, even when signing was discouraged.

While an exclusively oral approach benefited some students, for the majority of deaf children, emphasis on a spoken language resulted in limited access to language and, subsequently, to world knowledge. Deaf children experienced major barriers to information and participation during their education, and as a result, educators have started to change their positions about the importance of sign language in teaching and learning. Educators are finally adopting the perspective that deaf people (people whose native language is the sign language of their country) are actually “a cultural and language minority group” (Parasnis, 1997, p. 72).

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