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July 9, 2006

Specialized schools better than "inclusion": Deaf students

From: - Hamilton,Ontario,Canada - Jul 9, 2006

Jim Macdonald
Canadian Press

Sunday, July 09, 2006

EDMONTON -- When Chris Charbonneau walks into the Alberta School for the Deaf, it's as if a switch is turned on to a full-volume world of learning and socializing that was muted when he was in a regular school.

He talks to his friends and kibitzes with other students. His teachers use a sign language that he easily understands.

It's been a breakthrough from what he experienced before he entered one of Canada's few remaining schools for the deaf.

"(This school) rocks!" Charbonneau said during an interview through a sign language interpreter. "I prefer to be at a school with all deaf kids. I have people to talk to and have fun with."

Charbonneau, 14, transferred from a regular school in Grade 3. Before coming to ASD, he was taught through an interpreter in a process he found frustrating and repetitive.

"I didn't get a lot of the information and I didn't understand what I was supposed to do for my work," he said. "A lot of things I was learning again and again and again because I wasn't getting the information."

Leading deaf advocates say Charbonneau is a good example of why more deaf kids need to be taught in specialized schools at a time when the trend is to send them to mainstream schools.

Attendance at schools for the deaf has dropped sharply in recent years. Schools in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Quebec have closed and the closure of Newfoundland's school is planned.

"Many of the people who are making the decisions and many educators tend to be hearing, and they don't know the experience of deaf people," says Joanne Cripps, co-director of the Deaf Culture Centre in Toronto. "So they don't understand or don't know, or don't want to know or don't want to understand."

In London, Ont., for example, about 400 deaf children are being sent to mainstream schools while the number of students in the city's school for the deaf steadily dwindles.

"The money is not well spent because they're spreading it out in different special programs," Cripps said. "Children will have more mental health problems with no identity, no language, no community."

Cripps, who attended a residential school for the deaf as a child, blames misinformation for much of the reluctance to send kids to specialized schools.

"Many parents are afraid that if they expose their child to American Sign Language at an early age, then they won't develop spoken language, even though research shows the opposite is true."

"Governments across Canada have been ignoring good advice for many years and what's really needed is a royal commission to deal with deaf education issues," Cripps said in an interview.

She'd like to see Canada follow the lead of countries such as Sweden, where the law requires parents to have all deaf children taught sign language.

Cripps is also pushing for changes in the health system that would require doctors to direct parents of deaf babies to meet with deaf adults and visit schools for the deaf.

"Parents will listen to people in the medical profession, so the medical profession has a responsibility."

A fierce pride in their schools also has students and teachers speaking out about how the lives of deaf and hearing-impaired kids become "complete" in a setting where everyone knows sign language.

"Whoever invented that term inclusion is a liar," says Charmaine Letourneau, an Order of Canada recipient who attended the Alberta School for the Deaf herself and now teaches there.

"This school has made me what I am today. I thank God that my parents sent me here rather than to a mainstream school."

Letourneau says deaf kids in regular schools often segregate themselves because of cruel treatment from other kids.

Erica Reay, 14, says she had problems fitting in before she came to ASD.

"There wasn't a lot of good communication. I had students picking on me because I had a hearing aid," said Reay. "But I don't use the hearing aids now because everyone here signs. This is like our second home."

The sprawling Alberta School for the Deaf has hallways so long you can barely see the end, but many of its classrooms sit vacant.

The school, which once had more than 200 students and nearly as many staff in the '50s and '60s, now has only 65 students and about three dozen staff.

The building is showing the signs of a half-century of use, and a spokesman for Alberta's infrastructure ministry says it could be five to 10 years before it is upgraded or replaced.

Principal Betty Dean says that means the school will not be able to install the newest technology available for teaching deaf students.

"The advancement in technology has been huge," said Dean. "It gives deaf people equal access to information."

© Canadian Press 2006