Teaching Deaf Children

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There is a long-standing debate in the deaf community over the best way to educate deaf children. Should they be taught with other deaf children, in classes that emphasize sign language? Or should they be “main-streamed” into classrooms with hearing children, taught spoken language as much as possible and encouraged to take advantage of new technologies like cochlear implants?

Now, some sign language advocates in Indiana fear that budget shortfalls will determine the answer to that question. For example, Naomi S. Horton, executive director of Hear Indiana, which supports educating deaf children in mainstream classrooms, told the New York Times that:

“Kids in the mainstream save society, taxpayers, a significant amount of money in the short-term and in the long-term when it comes to being integrated into the hearing world,” though she added “There is a financial benefit, but at the end of the day it has to be a parent’s choice.”

Also, as reported in the New York Times, state Governor Mitch Daniels recently nominated new board members to Indiana’s School for the Deaf, two of whom are members of Hear Indiana. Currently, the School for the Deaf teaches both American Sign Language and English to students, who ideally end up bilingual in both. Deaf activists who support the use of sign language now fear that ASL will be thrown by the wayside at the school, leaving kids who can’t use or don’t want cochlear implants out in the cold.

According to Marvin Miller of the Indiana Association of the Deaf:

“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.”

At the end of the day, it’s important to support children and their parents no matter which approach they take. Cochlear implants work for many children but not for every child, and access to sign language and to the deaf community should always be available. With the benefits that come with being bilingual, it seems short-sighted to not teach deaf children to sign, whether they have implants or not. Hopefully, Indiana will manage to find the funds to support both types of students!