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Sign Language Studies 2.1 (2001) 5-19

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Sign Language Advantage

Marilyn Daniels

This article has a dual purpose. Its first purpose is to describe in some detail Sign in Education, a pilot program in the United Kingdom that integrated Deaf children and hearing children in a hearing classroom with a culturally Deaf teacher who taught the national curriculum to the pupils, both Deaf and hearing, in British Sign Language (BSL) for one afternoon a week throughout the fourteen-month-long project. Its second purpose is to explore and consider the value and advantage to the Deaf community, as well as the majority culture, of adopting a version of such a program in the United States.

The U.K. Sign in Education Program

The British program paired students from two schools in the same community. They were St. Thomas More RC Primary School, Middlesbrough, and Beverley School for Deaf Children, Middlesbrough. Every Monday afternoon six Deaf children from Beverley School, their teacher, and their classroom assistant were transported to St. Thomas More, where they joined a year-one class (first grade) of nineteen hearing students and their classroom teacher. A BSL tutor employed by the project was in the classroom during these afternoons and became the focal point of instruction as she conducted the majority of the lessons for all of the children in BSL. In addition, the BSL tutor spent two days each week working alongside the hearing teacher with the hearing students in the classroom at St. Thomas More. [End Page 5]

The tutor’s first language is BSL with written English as her second. She uses no spoken English, was born deaf, and comes from five generations of Deaf people. The BSL tutor sees and experiences the world from a Deaf perspective. Having these insights was deemed important for the integrated situation, and she was selected for the position because she was a culturally deaf, native signer.

The project was designed by Kathy Robinson, a hearing primary- school teacher who is the mother of two daughters who are deaf. She believes that the responsibility to communicate in the primary school classroom should be borne more equitably between hearing and Deaf children. At present 90 percent of all Deaf children in the United Kingdom are integrated into mainstream schools where they are expected to communicate in English. The burden is placed solely on Deaf children, who cannot use their own language (BSL) and must instead learn to use English. Robinson feels hearing children should acquire the wherewithal to communicate with Deaf children in their natural language (BSL).

She was able to convince others of the merit of her view, and the research initiative Sign in Education, designed to develop BSL skills in hearing children, gained financial support from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Teesside Training and Enterprise Council, and a number of businesses. Sign in Education’s goals were to develop BSL skills in hearing children; to support teaching the national curriculum to Deaf and hearing pupils with BSL; to integrate Deaf children into mainstream classrooms; and to develop Deaf awareness and a positive attitude toward Deaf people. The program, which was the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, monitored and assessed the hearing children’s acquisition of sign language, the relationships between Deaf and hearing children, and the attitudes of the staff and children (Robinson 1997, 1).

The Educators

The following material provides individual background and presents pre- and postprogram attitudes of the three educators directly involved in curriculum delivery with the children. Their precise suggestions are highlighted by relaying them in their own words [End Page 6] published in Sign in Education: The Teaching of Hearing Children British Sign Language in School.

Teacher of the Deaf

The teacher of the Deaf traveled with six of her students from the deaf school to the hearing school, where they were integrated into the hearing classroom. Her aims for her students were inclusion, increased social confidence, improved communication, speech, and understanding. When she reviewed the project and assessed the progress her students had made in the three specific aspects the...