Should children who are deaf and hard of hearing be educated in separate schools specifically for them, or in mainstream settings? New technologies including cochlear implants and other advancements in amplifying sound and speech have made it possible for children to attend mainstream schools which, some parents argue, will better prepare them for life in a society where not everyone knows American Sign Language. But others say that separate schools for the deaf and hearing-impaired, especially state schools for the deaf with long histories, provide a uniquely nurturing environment.
A New York Times article on the dispute notes that a number of states — Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota and West Virginia — have sought to cut the funding for schools for the deaf and hearing-impaired at a time of shrinking budgets. According to a group that advocates for the use of listening and spoken language, Hear Indiana, 20 percent of families choose ASL while the remaining 80 percent “want their children to enjoy the full range of sounds and to be able to listen and speak.” Marvin Miller, president of the Indiana Association of the Deaf, who is deaf, counters:
“Speaking and listening classrooms across the nation are known for their forced exclusion of A.S.L. and expressly forbid any contact with the culturally deaf adult role models.”
“We view this as inflicting violence upon thousands of innocent deaf and hard-of-hearing babies — taking away their language and pinning their hopes on dismal success rates of cochlear implants.”
Advocates for cochlear implant cite far higher success rates for the devices than do critics. Advocates for the use of ASL also say that the “popularity of such devices is drastically overstated.”
But it’s really budgetary issues — rather than real assessments of which educational settings most help students — that are, too often, the decisive factor. Educating a child in a separate school is more expensive, due to the costs of transportation (which can be around $20,000 per child) and the maintenance of separate facilities. On the other hand, separate schools for children with disabilities can seem more similar to the institutions and asylums of years past, when those with disabilities were “warehoused” away from the rest of society.
The debate about separate schools for children who are deaf and hard of hearing versus mainstream placements is one that resonates for students with other disabled students and their parents. I know that my husband and I wish very much for our 14-year-old son Charlie to be as integrated into mainstream society as possible. For years, we insisted that he be educated in the public schools in our towns.
Charlie has always been in a special education classroom and was only minimally included in classes with “typical” children, but, by being in a mainstream school, he did have some (if limited) chances to interact with other children and to be part of the life of school in our community. But when he entered middle school and had to contend with the hormonal changes of adolescence, we had — very sadly — to agree, Charlie needed to attend a separate school for autistic children.
Charlie has indeed thrived at the county autism center he now attends. The school is housed in a large and recently built facility, with its own gym and swimming pool (though students can’t use it too regularly, due to the need for lifeguards and other safety concerns). When a child has a severe behavior problem, there are plenty of trained staff on hand and, too, there are no stares. It’s a school for children with behavior issues, communication and cognitive disabilities, extremely sensitive sensory systems, and sometimes things happen. When my son was in the middle school of the town we used to live in, he was essentially segregated, as he spent almost the entire day, including lunch, in one small classroom. In his current school, he eats in the cafeteria and has music, art and Adapted Physical Education a couple of times of week. At the middle school, he couldn’t participate in music or art as he had in elementary school, because his needs were so far — were too different — from those of the other 6th, 7th and 8th graders.
My son has a lot of neurological challenges and, especially during his adolescence and teenage years, a school placement as understanding and accepting as the one he’s in has been the right answer. Outside of school, my husband and I do as much as we can to give Charlie opportunities to participate in mainstream society.
For many other students with disabilities, placement in a separate school amounts to segregation and limits their learning and other opportunities severely. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities must receive a “free and appropriate education” in the “least restricted environment,” in a school setting that least limits their opportunities for social and other interactions. However, too often — as in the case of my son at the middle school — a mainstream setting is in effect a separate one, despite what a school district claims.When grappling with the question of separate schools or mainstream placements, the one issue we have to keep at the forefront is: Are mainstream schools and those who oversee them truly making real accommodations for students with disabilities or just creating programs that suit their budgets, but not what students need?
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Photo of child with a cochlear implant by bjornknetsch