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September 26, 2003

Deaf Talkabout: Education lesson needs to be learned

From: Belfast Telegraph, UK - Sept 26, 2003

By Bob McCullough

EDUCATION is the biggest talking point in the deaf world at the moment and I was queried about it during my interview with the Hands On TV crew from Dublin last week.

"Why," the presenter asked me, "do you always stress oralism at the expense of sign language when you write about education?"

My reply was that I was all for good communication between teacher and pupil and that was the only thing that mattered. Out of the province's 530 deaf school children, only about 35 were now in a deaf school and the rest were in hearing-impaired units, or in mainstream schools where the oral method of education was the norm, allied to modern highly efficient digital hearing aids and specially trained teachers.

Some profoundly deaf children needed sign language when they were small and it was imperative that these children be recognised and catered for; but, as they grew older, it was important to develop the teaching of English as an internal language so that they could learn to read and write on equal terms with their hearing peers.

"Internal language" is a term I picked up during my visit to Mary Hare a few years ago. Dr Tucker, the headmaster, explained that, with normal reading, the words form patterns in our minds that build the foundation of language but, if deaf children talk only in signs, they mould the mind to think along these lines and the teaching of English becomes difficult.

I pointed out that bi-lingualism, where sign language is used alongside the teaching of English, has proved highly successful with many deaf children and, in some circumstances, it makes communication much easier when the pupils don't have to strain to keep up with the teacher but learn in a relaxed atmosphere.

I used this for many years in my GCSE English classes with deaf adults and the essential point is that, not only did they understand me without strain, I understood them, too, and communication was almost faultless.

As I said on the programme, one real answer to this problem will be when we have deaf teachers for deaf children?and this is not happening. More and more of our bright young deaf are graduating from university with excellent degrees and yet, for some reason, they are not attracted to teaching. Since my wife retired there has been no new deaf teacher of the deaf in Northern Ireland apart from Julie Graham, and she, with her first class honours degree, is teaching in a hearing school.

Maybe the answer lies in the A-level syllabus at schools like Mary Hare or the mainstream grammar schools that are now the choice of many deaf students and more attention should be given to programmes of study that will ease the way to teacher-training colleges.

But the essential thing is communication and this applies equally to deaf teachers as well as hearing. I believe with all my heart that deaf people can never call ourselves equal with our hearing peers until we have achieved equal levels of education.

© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd