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.
Photo of child with a cochlear implant by bjornknetsch
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