While most Americans confess that they do not like the educational system in the US, and an infinite supply of solutions continually are offered by politicians and educators alike, there remains a small group of people that is often overlooked (more on that shortly). The political ramifications of this group may well further define a number of other political issues, ranging from English as an “official” language to the best possible way to facilitate a child’s education.
First, many Americans seem to feel English is the only language that ought to be spoken, taught and utilized in every facet of Americans’ lives. Others disagree and state that the United States has a long history of embracing various cultures and even languages and is the basis for the existence of this country. One need not look further to the symbolic meaning of New York’s Ellis Island, as well as its long history of welcoming immigrants from all over the world.
But, in the US, there still exists a governmental policy to continue teaching American children a foreign language as a first language. Schools have been funded through state and federal government programs. Additional schools that teach this foreign language have also popped up in various community colleges and universities across the nation.
The results have been disastrous: a majority of the children taught this foreign language lack the appropriate reading and writing skills to function within the larger American society. High unemployment, suicide and drug abuse rates and other socially deviated behavioral patterns are consistent for this older members of this group as well. Even worse, attempts to restrict the educating of American children an inefficient first language has resulted in claims of “cultural genocide.”
Welcome to the world of deaf people and American Sign Language (ASL). During the early part of the 20th century, many schools of deaf children initially demanded that no mechanical (or manual) signing systems were to be used, and instead, intensive focus on lip reading, writing and speaking skills were stressed – this is called an “oralist” approach. Conversely, by the 1970’s, many researchers of deaf and hard of hearing educational systems began touting ASL as a “native” language of deaf people and began demanding ASL only be taught in deaf residential schools. Interestingly, anthropologists and linguists alike debated the claim that ASL was a true language and challenged the basis for the existence of a “deaf culture” built around ASL on the premise that a culture cannot exist without a language, among other things.
Today, many colleges and universities across the country are offering ASL classes as a foreign language elective. It has become widely accepted by many in deaf communities that ASL is a legitimate language – even going so far as to claim that ASL is the only language deaf people ought to use. Evidence of the impact of the political controversies surrounding ASL and “deaf culture” can be found during the 1988 Gallaudet University protests which were initiated by ASL-militants who demanded that ASL be the only language taught on the campus.
In deaf communities across the country, there are several variations of signing systems. Signed Exact English (SEE), for example, mimics English generally and allows people to utilize many aspects of English as it is spoken and written. ASL on the other hand, does not, and instead focuses on picture storytelling – ASL it should be noted, has no written form comparable to English. Regardless, the variations with respect to the number of signing systems used varies depending on geographical location and the homophily of deaf people.
Moreover, the justification used for the existence of deaf residential schools throughout the United States has historically been this: too few public schools have lacked the necessary resources for educating deaf children, and instead many were shuttled to deaf residential schools. Many hearing parents, lacking a support system — whether through governmental or non-profit organizations — sent their children to these schools because they were overwhelmed with the many aspects that are involved with educating deaf children. Conversely, many hearing parents choose not to send their deaf children to deaf residential schools after reports of poor educational standards and rampant sexual abuse of deaf children became public news. Today, many deaf residential schools are facing closure for these (and other) reasons.
For years, the primary place deaf children learned ASL was through deaf residential schools, and unfortunately, the dogma attached to using only ASL facilitated poor reading and writing skills for many deaf children. In fact, the reason many deaf people who were taught ASL as a first language struggle to learn other languages, may be directly related to ASL itself as well as the deaf educational system in the United States. In Europe, for example, deaf people there learn multiple languages, but Americans whose first language is ASL seemingly don’t learn English at sufficient levels to allow them to understand the larger world in general, let alone multiple languages. (In fact, Gallaudet University, the nation’s primary educational institution for the deaf has suffered from accreditation controversies, and recently, the Washington Post published a report that the school was placed on accreditation probation. In 1988, after the campus erupted in student protests, published reports indicated a significant number of deaf graduate students were illiterate and yet were allowed to continue teaching undergraduate courses.)
Making matters worse is the fact that there remain divisions regarding who exactly is considered deaf in the US. People taught ASL as a first language are generally referred to as “culturally deaf.” These people are taught that their deafness is not a disability, and reject any notion that they need to accommodate the larger, hearing world, which creates a self-defeating cycle evident to all. Not only that, but the number of these people on Social Security Disability benefits creates the appearance of hypocrisy by both educators of the deaf and “culturally” deaf people themselves. In fact, many culturally deaf people have adopted the claim that medical interventions, such as cochlear implants, are a form of “cultural genocide,” even though the implants themselves are no different than hearing aids – which many culturally deaf people use, anyway.
Deaf people who learn English (in whatever forms) are shunned by culturally deaf people and called, “hard of hearing” as an insult. The premise for this categorization is simply based on the purported belief that these people “choose” to reject ASL, and thus, deaf culture. But more hypocrisy occurs regarding ASL and the culturally deaf when sign language interpreters are added into the equation.
If one assumes ASL is a legitimate language, then there is only one real sign language in the US – ASL. A person who uses SEE, for example, uses transliterators and not interpreters. This is important because there exists a national 10-year-long shortage of interpreters throughout the country. Many college deaf students and public universities alike are finding it increasingly difficult to hire interpreters for the deaf, and yet little has been done to alleviate the shortage. In fact, national deaf and interpreter organizations have demanded (and received) legislative mandates requiring all sign language interpreters to be certified/and or licensed.
In New Mexico recently, the state’s biggest interpreter organization made the claim that because “deaf” people could not file complaints adequately since they were unable to understand the process, and also because interpreters themselves don’t manage themselves, the need for state intervention was required to regulate the interpreters. But, in the face of the shortage in that state, more stringent requirements for certification/licensing, all parties agree, will make the existing shortage even worse. Few solutions have been offered.
A majority of interpreter educational programs focus intensively on ASL classes for students. Increasingly, many students in these programs are questioning the validity of such intensive focus on ASL when evidence of less than 10% of all deaf people use ASL exclusively. In fact, increasingly, English is being integrated into ASL for many young, deaf children, which suggests that ASL is inefficient in more ways than can be stated here. Still, to become an interpreter has become exceedingly expensive and time-consuming for many people, and in the meantime, the shortage of interpreters continues to curtail efforts to educate deaf children in a manner that allows opportunities for independence from Social Security Disability rolls.
Moreover, statistics reveal that 60-70% of all deaf people in the United States are late-deafened adults. These people have suffered traumatic hearing loss as an adult, which means they most likely learned English as a first language. Perhaps this is why groups like these have long been ignored in favor of the so-called culturally deaf, although this appears to be changing – especially with the Baby Boomer population expected to produce significantly higher numbers of people with hearing losses.
The continued groupthink of many educators of the deaf and sign language interpreter educational programs has stunted many deaf children’s developmental capabilities for too many years. Ignorance remains a central issue with regard to who is deaf and who uses what signing system. Poverty, unemployment, drug abuse and high incidences of suicide, coupled with poor educational backgrounds have created an uneducated class of self-repressed Americans. These Americans were taught a foreign language, with little regard to the consequences of a poorly inefficient educational system and is self-evident for all to see.
Whether you are for an “official” language of the US, or if you’re a proponent of diversity and multiple languages, the obvious problems with both arguments can be found in a small group of people in the United States. These people are taught by the government, raised by school administrators and taught to rely upon the government for welfare.
Finally, given that 90% of all deaf children are born to hearing parents, there seems to be little reason to teach children a language foreign than the one their parents utilize – even if the parents become fluent in ASL. And, in spite of the fact that some deaf people whose first language is ASL are able to achieve PhD’s, the fact remains that the majority of people taught ASL as a first language suffer dramatically for it. Whether you believe the US has an “official” language or not, the fact remains that there exists a small, but powerful group of people – the culturally deaf and educators of the deaf – who insist that a foreign language is the “official” language of a certain group of Americans.
There is no greater crime than to stand between a man and his development; to take any law or institution and put it around him like a collar, and fasten it there, so that as he grows and enlarges, he presses against it till he suffocates and dies. – Henry Ward Beecher