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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday 5 March 2012

Falling On Deaf Ears: Educating Children With Hearing Impairments

       - Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty

Stephen Harper would love the Ontario Association of the Deaf (OAD) position in favour of maintaining the current number of provincial schools; their argument has “firewalls” written all over it. 

Harper, remember, has intentionally gotten out of the health care game.  At a time when demographic changes, technological advances and financial pressures are causing our outdated health care model (it can hardly be called a system) to buckle, the Prime Minister has thrown a couple bucks at the provinces and said “you’re on your own.”  This is absolutely the worst approach possible; efficiencies and excellence of care are found through systematic integration (like Family Health Teams), not by multiple parties operating in uncoordinated silence.

But we’re talking about schools for the deaf.  We’ll get back to Harper later.

Seperate but Equal

As part of its call for a reduction in duplication, gaps and overlaps stemming from our current silo-based service delivery model, the Drummond Commission has called for a consolidation of provincial schools for the deaf.  The provincial school system removes children who are deaf/hard of hearing  from their home communities and the normal education stream.  Instead of being in regular classrooms, these children receive separate education based around sign-language, “the native language of the deaf”.  Note - Drummond isn't caling for the end of such schools entirely; he's simply suggesting the number of students in the existing provnicial school system doesn't support the quantity of aging schools we have at present.  The big “D” Deaf Community favours these schools; they see the provincial school system as a nurturing ground for “deaf culture”, which they feel is distinct from “hearing” culture.

In their letter to the Premier of Ontario, the OAD suggests that “no real changes have been made to ensure that Deaf people are treated as equal to hearing people in Ontario.”  The changes that the OAD seeks are a higher level of support for “deaf culture” in the way that First Nations have rightly decried the systematic campaigns that have been waged against their culture. 

Two things on this score:

One, there’s a chillingly familiar ring to the “separate but equal” message.  It’s hardly a new notion; people throughout history have sought to isolate themselves from others, either to keep a focus on “their” values and belief system, or to block out influences they saw as negative or protect from the perceived threat of the “other.” 

In the case of the Deaf community, the fear is a loss of culture through integration.  They (rightly) feel that being deaf isn’t unnatural, that an inability to hear results in a different world view.  They are absolutely correct about that; those of us who can hear take hearing for granted and would feel lost without this sense.  But is the “deaf” way of experiencing the world at risk through social integration?  Other “cultural” groups have recently advocated for “separate but equal” education funding for their community world views, with less than universal support.

Funny enough, the Deaf community also uses the “excess burden on the majority community” meme in their argument.  They contend that community schools would have to spend more money for appropriate resources to support deaf children, should they be integrated into the regular school system.  Here’s the rub, though – when community schools and their boards see deafness, or learning disabilities, or any niche need as “not my problem” issues, they don’t invest in them. 

It’s really a counter-intuitive approach; the end result is that far too many children with hearing loss and other learning challenges aren’t identified and never receive the help they need.  As a kid with ADHD who was always in trouble with my teachers for not copying lengthy notes off the blackboard fast enough, I found elementary school more of an endurance test than a learning opportunity (I wasn’t diagnosed until high school).  Why on earth would we want to exacerbate that problem, especially when it results in bullying, suicide, family problems, underemployment, crime, etc?  We have to start looking at specific social problems for what they are; shared challenges that require collaborative solutions.

Two – what is the risk in one person having two cultures?  This is an age-old quandary; the existence of Québec language laws is based around the notion that an increase in one culture automatically threatens the existence of another.  Parents used to be told it was harmful to teach their kids two languages at the same time, as it meant they wouldn’t learn either one fully.

I’m an anthropologist by training, so I look at this dualistic perspective differently.  Culture isn’t an immobile, eternal thing – it’s organic.  Cultures evolve through time; French itself is a variant on Latin, just as English is mish-mash of several languages, including French.  To suggest that a worldview is in danger is to imply it is stagnant, which is never the case.  Besides, innovation doesn’t come through isolation, but from diversity.  Alexander Grahame Bell might never have invented the telephone if the deaf people in his life had constantly been isolated from him.

The same applies to the modern classroom.  Finding supports for the individual needs of students has always resulted in stronger, more effective teaching models and classroom environments that benefit all students.  Kids (and adults) with vision impairment aren’t removed from society; they are equipped with glasses.  In addition, text fonts get bigger and clearer, making it easier for all kids to see and absorb lessons.  Same holds true for deaf kids; technology exists to help the vast majority of deaf children hear just as well as anyone else does.  The presence of deaf kids in the “normal” classroom promotes sound dampeners on chair feet and sound amplification systems, helping teachers reach every student, particularly useful in large classes.

Placing deaf kids in normal classrooms doesn’t create an unnecessary burden; it provides incentive to make the system better for all.  When you get down to it, that’s the whole point of society in the first place.

Key to creating the right environments providing the right supports is early-identification and accommodation (something already understood, as evidenced by the growing focus on health promotion).  Communication and language acquisition isn’t just about speaking, or listening, or signing; it’s about cognitive development.  Just as undernourished children face greater, unnecessary limitations as adults, the same holds true for kids who aren’t given proper exposure to the full spectrum of communicative abilities as their brains develop.  As we get older, our brains switch gears from absorbing new information and developing new neural pathways towards solidifying existing ones; it’s why it’s harder to learn new languages as you age and why older people tend to be more inflexible in their opinions than youth.

Listening to the Voice of Reason

As I have written elsewhere, the core message of the Drummond Report was that our current, silo-based model of service delivery is failing us.  Individual groups competing for funding to provide variations on the same suite of services are costing us far more than necessary, creating a whole range of new problems in the process.  Like a well-loved old sweater, we might be used to this model, but the problems it is causing are now tipping the scales in favour of change.

What we need now is leadership willing to take on the challenge of reform.  To succeed, our leaders need a deep understanding of how the various social pieces fit into an integrated whole, plus the courage and patience to help the rest of us connect the dots.  There is a hopeful future waiting around the corner, but we can only get there if we’re moving forward together.

That means letting go of yesterday’s stigmas and looking for opportunities to work together tomorrow.  It means accepting the mistakes of the past and addressing them today; we all know what happens to those who refuse to learn from history.

Which brings us back to Stephen Harper. 

In what will likely be defined as his greatest moment as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper issued an apology to First Nations/Métis people for their isolation through the residential school system.  In this apology, Harper spoke the following words:

Maybe he wouldn’t support the OAD’s position, after all.


People with hearing loss – “the deaf” – have unique experiences of the world, resulting in unique world views.  This doesn’t have to be their only world view.  Technology exists that allows the vast majority of children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing to be full participants in main stream schools, develop to the maximum of their ability, then contribute those abilities to the greater good of our society.  Having these children in regular classrooms will result in a need for stronger identification and accommodation practices in our schools.  That’s a good thing, because the need exists already – we just haven’t had enough incentive to address it completely. 

When deaf/hoh kids participate in regular schools, they aren’t the only ones who gain new perspective; the same applies to hearing teachers and kids.  By being forced to pay attention, the “hearing community” will have reason to learn more about the deaf worldview – and benefit from it, just as Alexander Grahame Bell did.  This sharing of ideas will enhance the perspectives of all involved, promoting understanding and innovation, while also encouraging more efficient, integrated service delivery.  Which is exactly what the Drummond Report called for.

Social success is not to be found through standing against, but rather, through working together.  Communication, after all, is a two-way street; we can’t learn from each other if we’re aren't prepared to listen.

1 comment:

  1. As a teacher, I believe that it is important to integrate children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing into mainstream classrooms. As Craig says, "Technology exists that allows the vast majority of children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing to be full participants in main stream schools, develop to the maximum of their ability, then contribute those abilities to the greater good of our society." As teachers, it is our job to prepare students for a life journey of being active contributors in society and welcoming children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing into our classrooms will enable them to be independent learners and thinkers when they are older. More importantly, these children will not be segregated into "special" classrooms and further posh the stigma that being different ISN'T okay. I know two truly beautiful children who have cochlear implants and they are my son's good friends. When they are together, they play, act and behave the way ALL kids, so why can't they be in the same classroom as well!!!