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American Annals of the Deaf

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Partners in Education: Issues and Trends from the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf
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A second contributing factor was Alexander G. Bell’s Memoir on the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race (1883). Bell argued that the system of residential schools brought together Deaf people who intermarried and consequently increased the numbers of Deaf children. He was concerned about the existence of periodicals and organizations of the Deaf and advocated the closing of residential schools; he also discouraged the use of sign language.

Within a short period of time, some schools converted to oral-only instruction. Most, however, instituted a system whereby all children would be instructed orally in the elementary grades or up to approximately 12 years of age, after which some would be taught through a manual or combined oral-manual system. There were several variations. For example, some schools would divide children into oral-only classes or into manual or oral-manual classes. Outside of class, the children used sign language to interact socially.

The result was a reduction in the number of Deaf teachers and a limiting of the roles they played. Typically, Deaf teachers were not allowed to teach in elementary grades and, in many cases, in academic classes. They were limited, for the most part, to teaching vocational classes and children with disabilities. Often they did not have an opportunity to function as role models for younger children. By 1917 Deaf teachers accounted for only 14.5% of the teaching staff (Jones, 1918).

For long spans of time, North American Deaf and hard of hearing teachers and professionals suffered from discrimination. Although they were limited in the types of classes they could teach and were denied access to administrative positions, they still played significant and unique roles not available to other Deaf people around the world. It was through them that a common dialect of American Sign Language (ASL) was disseminated.

Even under these circumstances and although hearing administrators, many of whom were opposed to sign language, dominated the schools and controlled middle-class employment, deaf children at center schools were enculturated into the Deaf community and learned American Sign Language (Padden, 1980; Padden & Humphries, 1988). This was due in great part to the influence of graduates of Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University). Many students would come to Gallaudet from residential schools, marry deaf students from other residential schools, and then go to yet other residential schools across the United States and Canada as teachers and dormitory supervisors. As previously noted, they spread a common dialect of ASL from Gallaudet, acted as role models, played leadership roles in Deaf communities, and established effective communication networks across the continent. Despite the absence of a Deaf superintendent of a school for the deaf from 1900 to the 1970s (Moores, 2010), the Deaf community functioned effectively within a very complex environment.

The population explosion that began in 1945 at the end of World War II and the demographic shift from a more rural to an urban/suburban character had a profound impact on center schools and their residential programming. Despite the increase in the school-age population and the subsequent increase in the numbers of deaf children, very few new schools for the deaf were established. The number of attendees remained consistent, but the percentage of deaf children educated in center schools declined. Over time people have come to live primarily in heavily populated areas. In addition transportation has improved, especially as a result of the interstate highway system, which has made everything more accessible. In the past, deaf students, especially in the larger states, would arrive at school late in the summer and stay in residence, with perhaps a visit home over a winter break. They would then stay in school until the beginning of summer. In essence, the schools functioned in loco parentis. This is not the case at present since students within a certain radius commute to school, and even those who live in distant communities go home regularly on weekends. In fact, in some geographically large states children fly home and back to school on a regular basis.

In 1975, the greatest special education law ever in the United States, PL 94-142 (Education of All Handicapped Children Act), was enacted. However, this law, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has disenfranchised deaf and hard of hearing children everywhere. Special education administrators without training and expertise in deaf education have misapplied the least restrictive environment (LRE) provision to thousands of deaf and hard of hearing children, who, as a result, were placed into neighborhood schools with minimal educational support. Instead of learning directly from their teachers and peers, deaf and hard of hearing children had to watch interpreters who were often uncertified or unskilled—every day. Socially, these students were virtually isolated in their schools, where they had very little if any meaningful interaction with their hearing peers. Many have also suffered from the “Velcro syndrome,” as they must stay very close to their own interpreter for the entire school day. The interpreter is the child’s interpreter, teacher, teacher’s aide, counselor, and friend all rolled into one person.

After 35 years of this “mainstreaming” law, little is known about the achievement scores of deaf students in neighborhood schools. Also, anecdotal evidence increasingly indicates that many deaf and hard of hearing students who attend these schools throughout the elementary years later migrate to center schools during their middle school or high school years. More often than not, they show significant delays in academic and social development.

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