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American Annals of the Deaf

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Language Attitudes in the American Deaf Community
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and school than those who have hard of hearing parents (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2005, p. 243). Ninety-two percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents and it is very likely that these deaf children are not exposed to ASL at home with their families (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2004), so they usually acquire ASL at schools where deaf children use ASL as the communication medium with their peers and the school employees. However, ASL as the medium of classroom instruction has never been unchallenged. There have been many attempts in the past 150 years to replace ASL with oral and visual–kinetic communication systems that are designed to express the constructions of English (Baynton, 1996; Lane et al., 1996).

History of Deaf Education in America

Before the 1860s, deaf schools in America used manual-based instruction, meaning that the instructors and school staff signed with deaf students. Although the schools were concerned about deaf students’ abilities to read and write English, they did not place great emphasis on the students’ oral communication skills (Baynton, 1996; Lane et al., 1996). In fact, instructors were more concerned about subject-matter content that deaf students received than how well they developed oral communication skills. During the 1860s, a movement began to make U.S. deaf schools exclusively oral. This change reflected the situation in Europe, where oralism had gained greater momentum. During a conference of educators held in Milan in September 1880, delegates from deaf schools in France, Italy, several other European countries, and the United States debated the mode of communication to be used in deaf education. The American delegates had serious reservations about the effectiveness of instructing deaf students through oral means of communication, but the Europeans were impassioned about the need to restore deaf children to mainstream society, which they said could be done only by banning sign languages from schools and encouraging students to lipread and use the spoken language of their respective countries (Gallaudet, 1881). The resolutions passed at the closing of the conference ensured the dominance of oralism, and the deaf schools in the United States and Europe underwent major changes that affected not only Deaf students but also Deaf instructors, future generations of Deaf graduates, the livelihood of the Deaf community, and ultimately Deaf culture.

In the United States, most Deaf instructors were replaced by hearing instructors to nurture students’ speech and residual hearing abilities. Every year, some deaf students failed to develop speech acceptable to hearing instructors and administrators, even after many years of speech training. In addition, the schools’ focus on oral communication skills overshadowed instruction in academic subjects (Baynton, 1996; Lane et al., 1996). Deaf students could not acquire language normally through the oral mode of communication, which affected their learning of academic content. Academic expectations for deaf students were then lowered because they did not learn at the same rate as their hearing peers.

Oralism continued to dominate American deaf education until the second half of the 20th century, when questions were raised about the benefits of teaching deaf students through oral-only instruction and research studies confirmed the status of ASL as a natural language (see Stokoe et al., 1965; Stokoe, 1972; Klima & Bellugi, 1979). After years of consistently poor performance in reading, writing, and academic subjects, some educators realized that deaf students needed to communicate visually in order to learn well. However, after a long period of repeated attempts to supplant ASL, it was difficult for many to embrace ASL as a natural medium of instruction (Lane et al., 1996). Common misconceptions about ASL abounded: ASL is broken English, ASL is a gestural system with a flexible or nonexistent grammar, ASL is too conceptual to be a language, ASL does not have abstract forms, ASL is not a language because it has no written form, and ASL is a crutch for deaf children that hampers their development of written English (Lane et al., 1996; Schein & Stewart, 1995; Wilcox & Wilcox, 1997; Liddell, 2003). These misconceptions fed the skepticism about the linguistic status of ASL.

Current State of Deaf Education in America

Deaf schools have been the crucibles for the acquisition and maintenance of ASL (Lucas, Bayley, & Valli, 2001, p. 52). Even though deaf schools went through the period of oralism when sign language was banned from the classroom, Deaf students secretly used ASL with each other and ASL was continually passed on from older children to younger children. Most deaf schools eventually dismantled the oralist practice, but condescending attitudes and misconceptions about ASL remained. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, Mitchell and Karchmer reported that the number of deaf and hard of hearing students per thousand school-age population decreased from 1.2% in 1976 to less than 1.0% in 1986 but increased in 1993 to 1.1%, where it has remained stable (2006, pp. 96–97). Although the number of deaf and hard of hearing children has been approximately the same, the number of children attending special schools and programs for the deaf has decreased because of the rise of mainstreaming.[8] Before the 1960s, almost 80% of U.S. deaf children attended residential schools for the deaf (Lane et al., 1996, p. 244); by 2010, the percentage had declined to 24.3% (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2011). The implication is that because the combination of speech and signs, most likely Simultaneous Communication, is used in some mainstream programs, more deaf and hard of hearing students have been exposed to it than before.

In deaf schools (including residential schools and special educational centers for the deaf), deaf and hard of hearing students stay together and enjoy the advantages of having accessible visual communication in every aspect of school life. Mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing students do not have the same advantages. They tend to be widely distributed among neighborhood schools, and the schools have an extremely low number of deaf and hard of hearing students relative to the rest of the school population (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2006, pp. 95, 99). Mitchell and Karchmer report that, based on the Gallaudet Research Institute’s 2002–2003 Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth, 80% of the participating schools serving deaf and hard of hearing students in the mainstream setting have three or fewer deaf and hard of hearing students, accounting for 40% of the 40,282 deaf and hard of hearing students reported in that survey (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2006, p. 99; Gallaudet Research Institute, 2003). In addition, almost one of every five deaf and hard of hearing students in mainstreaming is the only such student in his or her school (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2006, 99).

Within mainstreaming, there are four different kinds of instructional settings for deaf and hard of hearing students: regular education, resource rooms, and two different forms of self-contained classrooms (Karchmer & Mitchell, 2003; Stinson & Kluwin, 2003). In a regular education setting, deaf and hard of hearing students receive the same instruction as their hearing peers in all classes, with or without special accommodation. A resource room is similar to the regular education setting except that the students need to report to a few classes with special education teachers and receive specialized educational services catering to deaf and hard of hearing students. One form of self-contained classroom is the setting where deaf and hard of hearing students stay with special education teachers for most of their classes, which tends to be isolated from the rest of the facilities for hearing students. Another form of self-contained classroom is a residential deaf school, where students may attend some classes while attending other classes in another educational facility serving hearing students.


    8. Mainstreaming is the practice of integrating deaf and hard of hearing students, as well as students with disabilitiesn, with nondisabled students in regular classrooms with appropriate accommodation.


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