IM this article to a friend!

December 3, 2006

Deafness debate

From: The Republican - Springfield,MA,USA - Dec 3, 2006


Seven preschoolers sang along with teacher Garrett Adams as he made a squirrel puppet bob along with the words. Donning paper headgear and tails turning them into crows and squirrels, they sang, "Gray squirrel, swish your bushy tail, wrinkle up your funny nose, hold a nut between your toes."

You could not tell from their voices that they are deaf.

They were in a classroom at Northampton's Clarke School for the Deaf and Center for Oral Education, where sign language is not on the curriculum.

"Most people think that if you're deaf, then you must sign," said the school's director, Dennis B. Gjerdingen. "We don't think our kids are handicapped or disabled. We think it's an advantage for them to be able to hear. Call it what you will, they don't have to be deaf," said Gjerdingen, who has severe hearing loss at high frequencies.

Across the state in Framingham, The Learning Center for Deaf Children was the first school in Massachusetts to depart from the "oral" method of education and to advocate the use of sign language in addition to spoken English. Principal Michael J. Bello says that although the school is bilingual and bicultural, sign language remains important, and he bristles when people question why many deaf people remain so attached to sign language at a time when technology makes it possible for more to learn speech.

"People ask, 'Why can't deaf people just want to speak like the rest of us?' It's America's monolinguistic obsession that the whole world's got to speak English or else."

As technology offers new possibilities with sophisticated hearing aids, cochlear implants and newborn screening, deaf education is in flux. Differing viewpoints have been in the spotlight due to the turmoil this fall at Gallaudet, the nation's only liberal arts university for the deaf, where protests over the selection of a new president ended in the ouster of incoming president Jane K. Fernandes. Student protesters at Gallaudet, which is in Washington, D.C., complained that although Fernandes is deaf, she was not committed enough to deaf culture. The protesters want students and teachers to communicate exclusively in American Sign Language, and they want to preserve a deaf identity that sees deafness as a cause for celebration rather than a disability.

Louis Abbate, president of the Willie Ross School for the deaf, said he believes in exploring multiple approaches on the school's campuses in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow.

"So much of education for the deaf has the word 'versus' in it. We should concentrate on removing the 'versus.' The camps need to be dismantled, and we need to create a newer vision where we realize the value of differing approaches."

One of the school's graduates and now a teacher there, Dulce S. Goncalves, is deaf and sees the value of speaking both languages.

"As a deaf individual I can use ASL or simultaneous communication or just speaking. If I'm speaking to individuals who identify themselves as capital D, I use just ASL, but I do not consider myself capital D," she said.

The 28-year-old Ludlow resident is technically hard of hearing; a hearing aid allows her to speak and hear well in spoken conversation, but without it she would need to lip read. She had an interpreter while attending the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where she graduated in 2001 with a bachelor's in psychology.

She has done well in both worlds, but, she said, "I do have frustrations. I've dealt with a lot of ignorance."

Mastery of ASL and skillful storytelling are highly valued in Deaf with a capital D culture. "We consider it to be a beautiful language," said Edward Peltier, director of the American School for the Deaf, in West Hartford. At the school, which is the birthplace of American Sign Language, "You would see sign language used consistently and regularly," Peltier said. Still he said, teachers encourage students to use their residual hearing and to learn speech when appropriate.

According to research by Gallaudet, with 96 percent of deaf children born to hearing parents, many choose cochlear implants for their children at a young age, and 81 percent mainstream their children into hearing classrooms. The implants are surgically placed in the inner ear and connected to a receiver around the ear which picks up sound and transmits electrical implants to the brain. About 100,000 people worldwide wear cochlear implants, including 22,000 adults and 15,000 children in the United States, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Peltier said that about 12 percent of students at the American School for the Deaf have cochlear implants, up from about 3 percent 10 years ago. "It's impacted how we provide related services," he said.

Dr. Theodore P. Mason, who started an implant program at Baystate Medical Center four years ago, said they implant between 25 and 30 a year on people with severe to profound deafness, starting on children as young as one year and also on the elderly. "People say it's miraculous," he said. "An implant is able to restore a lot of a patient's access to sound. The sounds they hear sound a little peculiar at first, but after the first few weeks it sounds like a person's voice," he said. "There's a huge change even in the deaf culture with people saying, 'Maybe this will help me live my life with greater access."

But over at The Learning Center, Bello said that although deaf people understand the importance of learning to speak in order to succeed in the hearing world, he perceives great risk in not learning sign language.

"No one can predict how well a child will learn with a cochlear implant," he said. "If you risk not teaching that child sign language, you will risk the child being orally retarded." Also, he said, "It's odd that people would be content in taking a person who is profoundly deaf and not help them communicate with other deaf people."

Students such as Joshua Walker, a sophomore at Gallaudet University, see no use for cochlear implants. "In some way, you're saying deaf people are not good enough, they need to be fixed," he signed in an interview with The New York Times. "I don't need to be fixed. My brain works fine."

The deaf pride movement traces its beginnings to Gallaudet, where the outgoing president, I. King Jordan, is the school's first deaf leader. He was named in 1988 after a round of protests.

Over at the Clarke School, Gjerdingen welcomes the recent debate. "It has heightened the awareness in America about what deafness is about. It's as much a civil rights issue as anything else. I don't condone what happened there," he said of Gallaudet, "but I understand it."

©2007 The Republican