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Special Education in the 21st Century: Chapter Eleven

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The arguments concerning the use of manual codes on English and ASL are reminiscent of the nineteenth-century conflict over “methodical” signs that were designed to represent English and “natural” signs that were generated by members of the Deaf community. “Natural” signs may be considered the precursor of ASL. In a review of the literature on the nineteenth-century controversy, Stedt and Moores (1990) noted that both ASL-based and English-based sign systems have survived and thrived since the beginning of education of Deaf children and will continue to do so because they fulfill important and complementary needs.

On balance, the evidence suggests that manual codes in English can be signed and understood with consistency, given that appropriate training and monitoring is provided. The sign-to-speech match for fluent signers and experienced teachers is approximately 90 percent. This level of sign-to-speech match has been reported not only for manual codes on English in North America (Luetke-Stahlmann 1988; Mayer and Lowenbraun 1990) but also in Australasian Signed English (Hyde and Power 1991) and British Signed English (Savage, Savage, and Potter 1987). Still, most educators would agree that the invented sign systems lack the power and sophistication of natural sign languages.

Educators of Deaf children essentially are faced with four communication options that can be used either separately or in combination. These options are briefly presented as follows.

1. Auditory (Acoupedic) Systems. This unisensory approach primarily relies on hearing and is especially used with very young children. The use of vision in training is de-emphasized, thus, the term unisensory. The justification for this approach is that, with early identification, fitting of powerful hearing aids (or cochlear implants), and intensive training, Deaf children can be taught to use and even improve their auditory potential to the extent that they can function essentially as hearing individuals. The counterargument is that, although effective with children who have usable residual hearing, it simply does not work with most children who have severe to profound hearing losses. The impetus for this approach came from Sweden in the years following World War II and spread to Western Europe and North America. (Note that Sweden currently uses a bilingual-bicultural approach.)

2. Speechreading. Speechreading usually is employed with the use of residual hearing in a bimodal, visual-auditory system to produce the typical “oral” classroom instruction. While speechreading, children can use their residual hearing, but they cannot be required to depend on it entirely. Again, success has been documented for some children, but difficulties in accurately understanding speechreading increase as a function of the hearing loss.

3. Manual codes on English. Most commonly, manually coded systems that are used in the classroom incorporate the use of residual hearing, speechreading, speech, the manual alphabet, and signs in an effort to provide an adequate representation of English. As previously mentioned, the major criticism is that, although it represents an improvement over oral-only means of instruction, it is awkward and does not fully represent English.

4. American Sign Language (ASL). ASL was not officially used in classrooms throughout most of the twentieth century until the mid-1960s. It is a complete, powerful, natural language that can be used for all aspects of communication. Reservations about its classroom use concern the fact that it does not correspond directly with English, and most parents of deaf children are hearing and are not fluent in ASL.

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