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Special Education in the 21st Century: Chapter Eleven

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Currently, educators of Deaf and hard of hearing children use the terms “bilingual” and “bilingual/bicultural” to refer to the classroom use of two languages—ASL and English—and two cultures—Deaf culture and hearing culture. Obviously, the situation can be much more complicated than that. Many children come from families that use languages other than English and ASL, and there are numerous cultures and subcultures in our society. For purposes of consistency the authors follow the current usage, with a caveat to the reader that we refer to “bilingual/bicultural” education in a very general way.

As might be expected, the educational uses of ASL have been a matter of controversy and confusion, compounded by a lack of definition of key terms and a scarcity of relevant data. This chapter is designed to provide a context for the development and possible future of bilingual education of Deaf children. Different perspectives on bilingual education will be presented, and practical suggestions for successful implementation will be given.

Modes of Instruction from 1960 to 1985

In 1960, the education of Deaf children was primarily oral only. Without exception, public school programs allowed no signs in classes. This practice was also true of all residential schools for children up to the age of twelve years. The “oral” schools maintained this policy through high school, and the “manual” schools would move their “oral failures” into classes where signs were allowed. Younger children were segregated from older children so they would not be contaminated by signs. Deaf teachers were not employed by public schools or by oral residential schools. In the manual residential schools, Deaf teachers were limited to teaching in high school and vocational departments or with children who had multiple disabilities. Not one program for deaf children in North America was led by a Deaf professional (Moores 1996). Deaf students were not accepted into the graduate program at Gallaudet College, now Gallaudet University, thus closing off teaching certification for all but a select few. In an earlier study of Gallaudet graduates, Fusfeld (1941) reported that more than half were employed as teachers or dormitory supervisors at residential schools. Most, clearly, were in dead-end jobs and were underpaid, with little opportunity to influence educational practice. This legacy of oppression should be kept in mind when considering the reactions that present-day Deaf educators express to criticism regarding the use of ASL.

The outlook in 1960 was for a continuation and strengthening of oral-only education. New, more powerful hearing aids were becoming available, and an emphasis on preschool education for Deaf children was growing. It was believed that early education programs emphasizing auditory training, sometimes called “acoupedics,” would substantially reduce the number of deaf children. Some advocates (Pollack 1964; Stewart, Pollack, and Downs 1964) viewed this procedure as the final breakthrough; one advocate even claimed that her procedures would cure deafness if it were instituted before the child was eight months of age (Griffiths 1967, 42–50). Apropos of the spirit of the times, Griffiths titled her book Conquering Childhood Deafness.

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