- EditorialThe Sound and the Fury
I have recently noticed an all too familiar phenomenon, a phenomenon that manifests itself in different ways, but which has its roots in the mistaken, but widespread, belief that spoken languages and signed languages—or oral communication and manual communication of any kind—must be treated as dichotomous and mutually exclusive entities. There is a persistent myth that one cannot exist with the other and that a choice must be made between the two.
I first met this mindset as a beginning teacher. The prevalent philosophy was that all children should be given the opportunity to succeed (or fail) orally. In all schools education through elementary school was completely oral-aural and all teachers were hearing. Some schools continued with this approach until graduation or school leaving. Others, primarily state residential schools, would introduce instruction in sign for those junior high and high school age students who were judged to be failing orally. After years of frustration, these children would finally have access to communication in the classroom, sometimes, but not always, with deaf instructors.
Dissatisfaction with the results of this system grew, but defendants argued that the growing number of preschool programs would alleviate the situation. It was argued that early identification and that either auditory-oral or unisensory acoupedic (auditory-only) intervention would provide deaf children access to spoken language and facilitate integration into the hearing world. However, research started to show that any benefits that deaf children realized from oral-only preschool experiences .disappeared by age nine; there were no discernable differences by that age between deaf children with preschool training and those without it.
The next stage involved reliance on technology. It was acknowledged that previous results were not as positive as expected but, with the development of powerful new hearing aids, the problems would be resolved and that the spoken word finally would be presented to deaf children in all of its glory. Powerful digital hearing aids HAVE been beneficial for many very young deaf children and adults. In fact, we have seen great recent advances due to universal neonate screening, provision of services to deaf children and their families, early fitting of hearing aids, and oral-aural training. The problem I see is that many professionals see each of these as a reason NOT to also use sign language or some form of manual communication with deaf infants and children. More than 30 years ago Roy Holcomb, the first deaf administrator of a public school program for deaf children, made the argument that deaf children have the right to ALL forms of communication. Unfortunately, that message has been lost to many professionals.
Even more unfortunate is the fact that all too often professionals who have the initial contact with parents of deaf children have no understanding of the educational needs of these children or of the options available to them. Through their misguided advice they may mislead parents. Ninety-five percent of parents of deaf children are themselves hearing. They also tend to be relatively young and are disposed to place their trust in the advice they receive from professionals. If they believe, or are lead to believe, that it is a choice between sign and speech, being hearing themselves, their most common decision is for speech. They may never be aware until it is too late that they do not have to make that choice.
The most recent manifestation of the dichotomy is related to cochlear implants. I have anecdotal evidence of young deaf children in total communication programs receiving implants and their parents subsequently deciding to eliminate any reliance on signs, with the expectation that the children will hear and speak normally. The influence of professionals on such parents is enormous. I have seen estimates that cochlear implants can save from $300,000 to $800,000 in costs over the educational career of a deaf child. The argument is that the implant will bring the "miracle" of hearing to the child, who would therefore have no need for any special education services. The argument, of course, is ludicrous but the parents do not know this. Residential schools, day schools, self-contained classrooms, resource rooms...