Thursday, September 30, 2010

On stupid children and the educational system

broken pencil on notepaper by paragen

Don't worry. The "stupid" in the title was tongue-in-cheek, as you'll see.

I had originally meant to include this post by Rachel Coleman in a Sunday Surf, but I started writing so much about it, I thought I'd bump it out to its own post.

Here's the link in question:

"I’m Sorry, Your Child Is Stupid,"

Rachel Coleman is the star and founder of the Signing Time DVD series (one of my reviews is here: "A review of Baby Signing Time DVDs, aka the cocaine of signing babies"). She started Signing Time as a way to reintegrate her love of music and pass on her newfound appreciation of American Sign Language after her first daughter, Leah, was born deaf. (Her second daughter, Lucy, was then born with spina bifida and cerebral palsy, but also learned to sign with her sister and parents, despite the predictions against it by her doctors. Both stories are captivating if you have the time.)

"We asked deaf adults for their advice on raising our deaf child. We asked them because they had lived the life that we wanted Leah to live… a life without limits. We followed their advice. We looked to the Deaf Community as our compass. They told us that Leah’s first language should be American Sign Language. They said that once Leah had a solid first language (ASL), we could then teach her English through reading and writing.

"Finally something that made sense!

"We were excited to share this breakthrough with the Early Intervention team, with the School District, with all of those people who could make a difference for every deaf child. We told them what we had learned and what we wanted for our child and why we believed it would work. They looked at us like we were crazy. They told us we needed to pick a program that they offered, they weren’t going to make up a new program just for Leah Coleman. It was such a slap in the face to have them simply re-offer their broken system, since that was all they had."

I really liked this post on "Your Child Is Stupid," because it captures the problems with deaf/hard-of-hearing education in U.S. public schools — and, it might be extrapolated, with the education of any student who needs specialized teaching. I thought it was really interesting from a language perspective as well. For Leah to be fluent in her first language, ASL, she needed to have at least two other fluent signers around her so she could watch the conversations (since the peers in her classes all signed by rote at a much lower level), and the schools resisted providing any such thing — both due to budget and due to lowered expectations for deaf children — an anticipation that they would never learn well so why bother. That's the part that really bugged me, of course. I know and know of plenty of highly intelligent, bilingually fluent Deaf people, so it's a shame that the public schools would have a system in place to fail those students who don't have a Rachel Coleman mother fighting in their corner, with all the privileges she has, such as a high level of education herself, white privilege, class privilege, relative wealth, etc. — and none of this is said to diminish Rachel's herculean efforts, just to note that it would be even harder for some other parents or for deaf students without parent advocates to bring about the same changes in their education.

This also made me think, maybe a homeschooling or unschooling situation would be better for deaf students, then, but maybe not, since they need that interaction with other fluent signers. In some ways, I feel an affinity to Rachel since I, too, am trying to raise a child bilingually in a language that's not native to me. But, the huuuuge difference is that if Leah didn't learn ASL, she would have been missing her native language, not the non-native one. ASL allows deaf children to grow up with a language that's as vibrant and expressive as a spoken language is for hearing children, so it's an essential groundwork for later learning, and comes naturally for deaf children born to deaf parents (which is, perhaps unexpectedly, rare — something like 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, as was the case with Rachel and Leah). And this is true for many deaf children even when a device like a cochlear implant is used. (Watch Sound and Fury if you're as interested in these things as I am and want to see one family's wrestling with the topic.)

ASL is not a representation of spoken English but a language all in itself, with its own grammar and culturally specific rules. The best way I can describe this association is to imagine what happens when you're learning a second language. For awhile, when you hear the word Baum, you translate it in your head to the English tree, and only then do you visualize a thing with a trunk and branches and leaves. But as you become more fluent, Baum jumps straight to the visualization, so that when someone says Baum, you see the image rather than its "translation." Beginning signers might memorize that such-and-such a sign "means" the word tree, but what it actually means is that thing with a trunk and branches and leaves. And just as there are phrases and words in German that don't directly translate into English but are just an approximation, there are many ways ASL is unique from spoken English. ASL has the added difference of being visual, so that it truly cannot be directly translated into English (nor other countries' sign language systems into their spoken languages). Depriving deaf and hard-of-hearing children of ASL (as well as children with other cognitive disabilities who benefit from signing) is depriving them of a rich and meaningful language uniquely suited to them. You'll see in the comments on Rachel's post that many special education programs are frustrating parents in their refusal to count signs in their evaluation of children's vocabulary, focusing solely on spoken English ability.

Here are some sobering statistics for deaf and hard-of-hearing children in the United States:

  • Deaf and hard-of-hearing children are expected to graduate high school with a third- to fourth-grade English reading level.
  • Deaf/HH children typically gain only 1.5 years of literacy skill from age 8 to 18.
  • Only 55% of deaf/HH students graduate from high school (compared with a national 8% dropout rate — and do you see the race factors at work in those national statistics?), and only 8% of deaf/HH students graduate from college.
  • The earning capacity of deaf/HH employees is 40-60% lower than that of hearing employees, and the unemployment rate among deaf adults is 42%.

Keep in mind that some deaf/HH children (as many as 40%) might have learning challenges apart form hearing loss. Even so, it seems like the public school system must be doing something wrong. Please let me assure you that I am not blaming individual teachers (big kudos to you for what you do) but the system's failures.

It seems like the schools repeat the same tired tropes that learning ASL hampers deaf/HH children's ability to learn English, but I would think it's going to be difficult to learn a spoken language if you can't hear regardless of whether you learn ASL or not. At least with a foundation in ASL, a deaf/HH person would have a language to be fluently expressive in, and to fully understand what's being said to that person. Keep in mind that lip reading garners only about one-third of what is said; it's a way to guess and estimate the conversation, not a full comprehension with all the details. (Interestingly, that's about how much spoken German I typically absorb in a conversation!)

There are other arguments that can be made here, too, of course — that educational success is not the be-all-end-all for anyone, and that just because our society values English literacy, bachelor's degrees, and career prestige doesn't mean those are the only criteria of success. Can a Deaf person who is fluent in ASL but holds no degrees or job still be successful by other measures? Naturally.

But the public school system has promised every student, regardless of physical, mental, or learning limitations, a "free and appropriate education." And not everyone is getting even close to that.

What have been your experiences with education for children (your children, yourself, others) with learning challenges?

If you're interested in learning American Sign Language yourself and/or with your children, to increase your communication with a significant portion of our population and the possibility of participation in the vibrant Deaf culture, I recommend (obviously) the Signing Time series and the online (free!) university at, or signing up at a local community center for a conversational ASL course and then perhaps continuing on with a college-level course, and, of course, getting out and meeting the Deaf community in your area and being a friend.

Photo courtesy Phil Ragen on stock.xchng

Disclosure: Signing Time and Amazon links
are affiliate links,
because I lurve Signing Time.
See my full disclosure policy here.


Momma Jorje said...

Here is another good signing link: - They even have a section of baby signs!

Melodie said...

This is so great. Back in the day, I was studying to become fluent in ASL so I could be a counsellor for the Deaf, so Deaf Culture and Rights for the Deaf are actually a passion of mine. There are Schools for Deaf children in the US. It sounds like there aren't any near where this family lives, but I wonder if there is any ability to move. I know it's a major thing and obviously if they can't then they can't and there SHOULD be more resources for families who have a deaf child, but there often isn't. My heart really goes out to them and I appreciate you posting this. It was a nice change of pace for today's reading.

Dona said...

It would be interesting to compare the deaf students who learn ASL first to statistics about non-native speakers of English. Both bilingual and full immersion programs have been shown to work for ESL students, but as you point out, they have someone (or three) continuing their native language study at home. As Melody said, if they can move, or Find a school system near them that has a better program, the state and local systems have to figure out how to make it happen, usually per state and federal laws in place now. Thanks for the insight!

Elita said...

Very interesting! I have loved Rachel ever since I read her inspiring story of using a sling to carry her baby to the top of a mountain. You can just tell that she is so passionate about her kids having a full life and that she would never impose any limitations on them. She is seriously inspiring.

Why would anyone assume that just because someone is deaf that they would be stupid? That makes no sense to me. Obviously not being able to hear is going to make speech more difficult, but reading and learning? Does not compute. My guess is the statistic that 40% of deaf children have learning challenges has more to do with the assumptions of the educators and the way they respond to the students than the students themselves.

Related Posts with Thumbnails