A cultural community arises when a group of people, communicating through a common language, develops a set of beliefs, social behaviors, and norms. Deaf people who use American Sign Language as their primary language form such a cultural community. Hailing from all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, and geographical regions across the United States, culturally deaf people hold the view that deafness is a social phenomenon rather than a disability. They take pride in their shared social/political organizations, literature, visual works of art, history, and group norms.
Deaf children born to deaf parents begin language and cultural learning at birth, but these children are far and few between. More than 90 percent of all deaf children are born to two nondeaf parents, many of whom have probably never met a deaf person in their lives. In cases where the diagnosis of deafness is not made for months or even years after the baby is born, the critical time for language development is irretrievably lost. The early years for the undiagnosed deaf child of nondeaf parents will probably be filled with rich experiences that lack the appropriate language accompaniment to foster intellectual and cultural understandings.
After the diagnosis of deafness is made, nondeaf parents are forced to make an immediate decision regarding communication. If they continue utilizing aural/oral methods, they will need to accept that, despite the intensity of direct instruction, their child may make relatively slow progress in speech, listening, and speech-reading skill development. If they decide to implement signed communication methods, they will need to learn sign language and consistently use it when their child is in their presence. In either case, the consequences of this delayed language input are serious and long reaching. Schools serving deaf students often find it necessary to supplement social emotional, linguistic, and cultural development in addition to the traditional role of transmitting academic information.
The federal government, through the enactment of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and the recent reauthorization of Public Law 101-476, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), guarantees the educational rights of all children. However, parents, students, concerned deaf adults, court judges, and educational professionals disagree as to what actually constitutes the mandated free and appropriate education in regard to deaf students. Less than 1 percent of all school-age children are classified as deaf, yet it is impossible to find one educational setting that satisfies all involved.
There is a wealth of public school placement options currently available from which to choose. At one end of the continuum is full-time care in a boarding school that serves only those who are deaf, while at the other end is total inclusion in a class of deaf/nondeaf peers in a local public school. Between these two extremes lie options such as day classes in a regionalized school for the deaf; a self-contained classroom in a public school; part-time placement in a Resource Room; tutorial pullout classes with an itinerant teacher trained to work with deaf children; or at-home instruction.
Regionalized schools bring together larger numbers of children who are deaf, have a culturally dedicated focus that normalizes deafness, and provide numerous deaf role models, though the deaf child may be taught far from home, thus causing separation from family and neighborhood nondeaf peers. Local public schools reduce the physical distance between deaf and nondeaf students, increase the potential for interaction between the two cultural groups, and offer an environment where mutual appreciation and respect can be fostered, though the deaf child may be alone among hundreds of hearing schoolmates and not meet any deaf role models until adulthood.
No one type of communication mode or program is ideal for all deaf children, whose needs are as diverse as the contributing factors to the condition. It would be incorrect to use a single model to try to satisfy the needs of all deaf children. Ideally, each child’s situation should be individually evaluated and addressed.
- Lane, H., Hoffmeister, R., & Bahan, B. (1996). Journey into the Deaf world. San Diego, CA: DawnSign Press.
- Marschark, M., Lang, H. G., & Albertini, J. A. (2002). Educating deaf students: From research to practice. New York: Oxford University Press. Spencer, P. E., Erting, C. J., & Marschark, M. (Eds.). Essays in honor of Kathryn P. Meadow-Orlans: The deaf child in the family and at school. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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