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American Annals of the Deaf

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Literacy and Deaf People: Cultural and Contextual Perspectives

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Since teaching and learning occur through the medium of language, in activities created over time in the cultural setting of schools, the cultural solutions of Deaf people have a role in education. Hearing teachers and parents are not destined to be foreigners to Deaf culture. The language socialization, language use, and instructional discourse patterns of Deaf people are critical places to look for ways to make contact with deaf students and help them learn. Many of these patterns rest on knowledge of ASL. But good teaching practices that reach deaf children and serve their learning needs can be adopted by ASL-signing hearing people (see Ramsey and Padden 1998; Humphries and MacDougall 2000). Deaf culture does not isolate deaf children from the “real” world, where the normal people live. It will more likely, in fact, do the opposite. All people who are truly bilingual, even those who are forced by circumstances to be bilingual, know a great deal about both of their languages and how to use them. Bilingual Deaf people know more about English, even spoken English, than we think they do. Many Deaf adults continue to learn English after they leave high school (Ramsey 2000). A strength of American Deaf culture is its rich content about hearing people, English, reading, and how to approach and cross the porous boundary that separates Deaf from hearing people. The hearing undergraduates who took issue with Deaf culture were wrong in their assumption that culture creates separations. For marginalized groups, culture offers the information they need to comprehend and participate in the range of worlds they must enter, including their own and that of the powerful “others.” Rather than assume that deaf children must be molded into hearing children, it is much more helpful to seek Deaf cultural knowledge about how the world is and how to make sense of it. Stripping culture down to its foundations is the best way to help all of us—the romantics, the trait-list makers, the doubters, and the teachers—understand why we cannot ignore its powerful presence in schools.

What does culture have to do with the education of students who are deaf or hard of hearing? Watch a skilled Deaf teacher teach English idiomatic expressions to another Deaf person, child or adult. Ask Deaf adults about their favorite teachers, and you will hear about at least one Deaf teacher who explained something about English in a clear way, who taught strategies for reading comprehension, or who explained how to use a library. Irrational rumors to the contrary, the culture of Deaf people does not want to trap deaf children—only to offer them strategies so they can learn, use, and improve upon the innovations of history to make living in the world possible. Look for Deaf innovations to the problems of learning and development as well as information on language structures, discourse patterns, teaching strategies, the values about English, and hearing people and the larger culture, and that is where you will find Deaf culture’s role in education.


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