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March 19, 2007

Campus for deaf, blind opposed

From: Columbus Dispatch - Columbus,OH,USA - Mar 19, 2007

Alumni fear social, safety issues if state schools share space

Simone Sebastian

Alumni are fighting a plan to create a single campus for the state schools for the deaf and the blind, saying mingling their student bodies will create safety and social problems.

They fear that students’ inability to communicate could lead to teasing and bullying if the Ohio State School for the Blind and Ohio School for the Deaf share facilities such as a gym and cafeteria.

Forcing the students to interact will destroy the deaf school’s culture, said Richard Huebner, president of its alumni association.

"We will start a petition. Rally and protest," Huebner said through an interpreter. "We’ll fight this to the bitter end to keep them separate."

Some alumni of the blind school fear that deaf students will take advantage of their blind peers if the campuses are combined. Deaf students might beat up blind students because they can’t see their abuser, said Doug Emerson, recording secretary for the blind school’s alumni association.

But he said the blind alumni won’t impede the project.

"It is a done deal. It would be a moot point to go against it," Emerson said. "It does make good economic sense to do this." The state-run schools’ campuses are separated by a ravine near the intersection of High Street and Morse Road. The state has appropriated $4 million to begin planning a consolidation of their campuses on the School for the Deaf’s 130-acre property to save money on operating costs. Their educational programs would remain separate.

If the project goes as planned, it will cost about $40 million and will be completed by 2012, officials have said.

Officials from both the blind and deaf schools said they haven’t decided how much their students will interact but said that they will prevent violence. Officials won’t decide until June, at the earliest, whether the schools will share a gym, cafeteria and other common areas, said Eric Algoe, chief operating officer for both schools.

Members of the deaf-alumni association fear that merging the campuses will compromise deaf students’ self-esteem and conviction that deafness is not a handicap.

"I don’t feel I have a disability. Many deaf people don’t," Huebner said. "If you add another handicap (at the school) ... they’ll have no identity, no self-esteem."

That’s not an issue for the blind, said Barbara Pierce, president of the National Federation of the Blind’s Ohio division.

"There’s a deaf culture in a way that there’s not a blindness culture," she said.

Harlan Lane, a professor and author on deaf culture from Northeastern University in Boston, said government institutions started separating deaf people and blind people in the 19 th century because of the stark differences in their needs.

But economic constraints have reversed that trend. Now, about 12 schools in the United States teach blind students and deaf students on the same campus, school officials said.

Lane said that is an affront to deaf culture.

"Their deaf world has its own customs, own values," he said. "They don’t see it as a disability, so to put them with a group that does see themselves as having a disability ... it cuts very deep."

School administrators say the plan makes economic sense. Buildings at both schools are deteriorating, they said, and the project will construct new ones and include state-of-the-art technology. The combined campus also will allow officials to merge services such as maintenance, food and custodians.

"That is a considerable cost savings to the state," deaf-school Superintendent Edward E. Corbett Jr. said through an interpreter. He is deaf.

"Our buildings are not conducive to good teaching," he said. "The new school building will afford us good planning and help us achieve the school we want for the future of our students."

Community meetings about the project will be held across the state, beginning with one today in Columbus. That meeting will be held at the Ohio School for the Deaf from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

©2007, The Columbus Dispatch