The Power of Deaf Education

Originally reported on SensibleReason.com on November 23, 2013

Sometimes I wonder what other people think of when they hear the word “deaf.” What images, what feelings first pop into one’s head? Deaf.

Myself, well, I get a warm, homey feeling as I picture my dad, big and tall, and the light orange hairs that surround his mouth tickling and shuffling as he laughs at one of his own jokes, which (sorry to break it to you, Dad!) sometimes aren’t all that funny, but are always stupid enough to make me laugh all the same. I smile as I picture my mom, shaking her head at me, trying to hold back her smirk (which undoubtedly shines through), as I laugh at one of my own jokes, which (in my complete, unbiased opinion) are always that funny.

A common conception of the word “deaf” is disabled, broken, something that needs to be fixed. People feel sad, sorry. For me, the thousands of hands fluttering around me crafting beautiful words into beautiful stories is only one thing: home.

I am a hearing child of two Deaf adults.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets to experience the intimate relationships within the Deaf community that I have, and so, by the laws of nature ignorance persists.

A deaf stigma continues; it is seen as something negative, categorized by limitations and sympathy despite one blunt fact:

“Deaf people can do anything hearing people can, except hear.”

One of the worst effects of this ignorance lies within education. Instead of realizing the unlimited potential of Deaf people everywhere, the stigma of deafness creates fear out of a laundry list of “can’t” ‘s, and attempts to solve this by slapping a hearing aid or cochlear implant on a newborn child, placing them in a mainstream school setting, and attempting to make them as “hearing” as they can be. Before I jump on to a whole nother crusade which I am not yet ready to fight, let me be clear that my intent is not to criticize those who use hearing aids or cochlear implants, or those who choose to receive a mainstream education. I live under a very “to each his own” philosophy, in which I believe that one should be able to decide his or her own fate without judgement. Instead, my goal is to highlight one of the multiple opportunities available for Deaf children: an education in a deaf-enriched environment in which their most natural form of language is available, that language being sign language.

I will be the first to admit that I’m not the most scholarly person to speak on such a controversial topic like Deaf education. Unlike my sister and many of our other CODA (children of Deaf adults) friends, who are undoubtedly more qualified to write on such a topic, I lack a formal education in “Deaf Studies.” Instead, my version of “Deaf Studies” is simply 19 years of experiences, conversations, and feelings. My opinion about Deaf education comes from countless days spent at Rochester School for the Deaf for “Bring Your Child to Work” days, basketball games, and a multitude of other Deaf events I won’t even begin to delve into. It comes from general conversations with other members of the Deaf community, be them Deaf or hearing, five years old or 70 years old, about anything and everything. It comes from a passion that is almost indescribable, but, for me, extremely sensible and justified.

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The public reemergence of my opinions on this subject come after watching a video that profiles the establishment and importance of the first Deaf school in Ambo, Ethiopia, which opened this past December. The Ethiopia DeafProject is an Irish and Ethiopian collaboration to build, strengthen, and provide resources for the broken Deaf community in Ethiopia, eliminating all “can’t” ‘s and reminding people that they can. Their efforts expand beyond education alone, instead promoting Deaf community, interaction, awareness and support. Passionate about this concept of total unity, my sisters and I will be traveling to Ethiopia this summer with our Irish friends to assist them in their efforts by hosting a two week Deaf awareness camp (more on that below). However, perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the Ethiopia DeafProject to date is the establishment of the Deaf school. Before the Ambo Lazarist Deaf School in Ethiopia, Deaf students only had access to education through the means of sign language until grade four. From there on out, they were forced to enter hearing classrooms without sign language interpreters, which ultimately cut off any means to an education.

Education, I think most of us will agree, is the backbone to almost every society in the world. It is our only avenue for growth and development and, without it, or without appropriate means to it, one is left at a disadvantage.

Deaf schools all over the world are important not only for the education itself, but for the social interaction, the sense of community and empowerment that it provides for Deaf students.

DEAF EDUCATION: LANGUAGE

Hearing people rely on their ears to communicate. You hear, and then you respond. For a Deaf child, that option is no longer available, and so the next, most natural way to communicate is visually. In comes sign language, a visually based language complete with it’s own set of grammar rules and tone markers. The use of sign language in many Deaf schools is important in educating Deaf youth because it gives them the ability to learn in the language that comes most naturally to them. It would be tough for a hearing person with little to no sign language experience to enter a Deaf classroom where all of the material was taught in sign. Flip the situation, and the only thing that changes are the circumstance. The outcome is still the same: a Deaf child will have a tough time learning in a completely audiology based classroom because they are not accustomed to that method of communication. Another factor in this scenario, however, is that while the hearing child could learn sign language and learn how to communicate visually, a Deaf child can not just simply learn to hear. Sign language gives them a way to express themselves that is unmatched by any other communication method.

While there is a case to be made about interpreters acting as this avenue into education in a hearing environment, there is another to be made about social interaction and a sense of involvement and belonging which I will address in the next section. In addition to that, the classroom is ultimately set up to accommodate the hearing students, and so there is still a risk that a Deaf student will not get all of his or her needs met for a successful education.

SOCIAL INTERACTION

The social implications of Deaf schools might be one of the biggest arguments advocating for them. When a Deaf student is placed into a hearing school they are often isolated, a lone Deaf soldier in a sea of hearing counterparts. Naturally this is intimidating, being one in a group of many. And, naturally there is a communication barrier between the two groups, but as the singular party, oftentimes it is the Deaf student who is left out of conversation, making it harder for them to make friends. Even if the child is lucky enough to have an interpreter during classes, it can feel awkward or forced to have an older person interpret your social conversations. It is hard to be yourself when someone else is speaking for you.

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In a Deaf school, children can express themselves freely amongst one another without worrying about the use of a third-party to communicate. With a common language comes more inclusion and easier communication, which ultimately leads to stronger bonds and friendships. With everyone on the same playing field it is easier to be more comfortable, to be oneself. Similarly, although they come from diverse backgrounds, these kids all have one thing in common: they are Deaf. Therefore, they can share common experiences and frustrations with one another that a hearing person just wouldn’t understand. Many times, especially if a student comes from a hearing family with little Deaf experience, a Deaf school can feel like “home:” a place where finally someone understands. Both of these things create a sense of community that is unmatched when a Deaf student is placed in a hearing school.

EMPOWERMENT

Like I’ve stated above, Deafness is often defined by limitations from the hearing world. Deaf individuals are constantly told what they “can’t” do. However, Deaf schools become a different outlet by providing a safe, supportive community in an enriching environment that tells these individuals that they can. The environment is unique in that those who create it understand exactly what challenges and frustrations Deaf people face and become the perfect role models for how to handle those situations. Additionally, in a Deaf school setting, students have Deaf teachers and administrators to look up to as examples of successful Deaf individuals, of people who made it. In coursework or casual conversation with friends they are also presented with examples of many other Deaf individuals who work in different fields all across the world. A totally encompassing, supportive environment creates a feeling of empowerment, a feeling like they can do anything despite all of the “can’t” ‘s.

Deafness is not a disability. It is not something that needs to be fixed or cured or what have you. Instead, it is a culture, a community, a home. And so, these children deserve an education fit for their being, just like every other child in the world. They should not be forced to assimilate into a hearing monotype, but instead should be encouraged and supported to reach any height.

The recent Deaf school established in Ambo, Ethiopia is making huge strides for their Deaf community as a whole. Deaf schools raises Deaf awareness. Deaf awareness, if strong enough, eliminates stigmas. And eliminating stigmas leads to an inclusive society where Deaf people are finally seen as equal to their hearing counterparts.

In July-August 2014, my sisters and I will work alongside our Irish friends to help spread Deaf awareness amongst the Deaf community itself. By setting up a two week camp we will give them the opportunity to come together outside of a school setting in a more relaxed environment designed to promote unity. In addition to normal camp games and activities, we will be hosting a number of Deaf awareness and Deaf empowerment workshops to break down barriers and connotations of “can’t.” Once these 2.8 million Deaf people are given a supportive community designed to help them grow, I have no doubt that they will achieve great heights and change the world.

However, getting to Africa is not cheap, and as broke college students, the only way we will get there is through the generosity of others. For more information and updates on our trip, “like” our Facebook page: Our Trip to Africa, and donate if you can. Every dollar helps, and yours would send us one step closer to helping others.

In addition, please support us in supporting the Ethiopia DeafProject by liking their Facebook page, where you will find updates on their mission in Ethiopia.

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