The education of Deaf children is complex and has been controversial throughout history. Try to imagine what it would be like to never have heard a spoken word! How could you possibly learn alanguage? Children who are deaf need two languages - a signed language and a spoken/written form of a hearing language in order to develop and function in a hearing world. That being said, mastering the English Language with its complex structure, grammar and idioms is very difficult for deaf children. They cannot learn words based on phonetic sounds. The spelling of every word has to be committed to memory rather than "sounded out" as hearing children learn to do. Deaf children cannot learn a spoken language through hearing. Their first and most important means of communication is sign language. American Sign Language (ASL) is recognized as the official language of deaf people in Canada and the USA. It has its own complex grammar and structure that are not derived from the English Language.
The majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents and arrive at school without a language. Primarily, their hearing parents communicate with them through home-made signs, pointing and gesturing. In the children's prime years of learning, they miss out on fairy tales, story book reading, the language structure of their parent's language and of their own language. Due to the parents' inability to communicate with them, these deaf children get no explanations of why they can and cannot do things. More importantly, they miss out on incidental learning and language development that take place daily in conversations around them or through information that would normally be gleaned from playmates, radio, television and other sources. This lack of background knowledge and information puts them at a major disadvantage compared to hearing children starting school at the same age. Research on the reading abilities of Deaf children reveals that they have difficulty learning how to read in English because of the missing background information and because of their lack of knowledge of English language structure. The lack of exposure to information within their environment means that they cannot put new information in perspective. Deaf children of Deaf parents do better because they have a language base which enables them to make sense of the signs they receive. They have access to incidental information and can converse freely with their Deaf parents. They start school with linguistic knowledge in ASL upon which they can build a second language (English). They have the advantage of knowing that there are two dofferent languages and they have some idea of how they both work. This background information gives these Deaf children a huge advantage over their peers with hearing parents, who for the most part only begin to learn signs when starting school.
Educating Deaf children presents unique challenges that do not have to be considered for children with disabilities who can hear. Hearing children with disabilities share the same language (English) as other students in the school. Deaf children's native language is sign language. Sadly, most children who are born deaf are not given the opportunity to discover the world of language early in life. According to Meadow (1980) for children born with a profound congenital hearing loss, the fundamental deprivation is not that of sound, but of language. For education of Deaf children to succeed, it is imperative that they be taught ASL at a very young age. The language of Instruction in school must be received by the Deaf students in ASL.
Many hearing people have the misconception that American Sign Language is spoken English expressed on the hands. In fact, American Sign Language (ASL), as stated earlier, has a complex grammar that is very different from English Language. ASL has its own rules of word and sentence formation. ASL uses the hands, the face and the body in the production of language. A sign in ASL represents not an English word, but a concept. ASL is as complex and expressive as spoken language. For hearing parents, learning ASL means learning a foreign language, and one that is difficult for many English speakers because it is so different from English, not only in mode of expression but in form and structure. (Likewise, Chinese which is very different from English in form and structure, is more difficult for English speakers to lear than say, French.)
With the closure of the Newfoundland School for the Deaf, the NLAD and members of the Deaf community have a number of concerns regarding the education of the Deaf children.
Some of these concerns are:
- Who will be teaching pre-school children sign language?
- Who will be monitoring the progress of Deaf children in inclusive education? This mornitoring muct include academics, social and extra-curricular activities, child satisfaction with placement.
- Quality of teachers of the Deaf
- Quality of student assistants
NLAD is aware of one child in this province who is mainstreamed with no teacher of the Deaf, no interpreter and no supports. The child misses a lot of school because of this placement. NLAD has concerns that there may be other children throughout the province in similar situations.
NLAD needs the assurance of the provincial government that deaf children throughout the province of Newfoundland and Labrador will have access to all supports that are needed for their education in an inclusive environment and that these supports will be put in place.