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The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Trustees passed a controversial resolution in May that places deaf and hard of hearing children in a bilingual program in American Sign Language and English. But several months into the school year, the implementation of the policy is fraught with pitfalls from some teachers and alleged resistance from those charged with implementing the curriculum.
At the center of the controversy is a debate that goes back decades over whether young deaf and hard of hearing children should learn sign language or focus entirely on speaking skills.
New The policy makes the bilingual program the default offer for all deaf and hard of hearing children aged 0-3 years, provoking backlash from some parents who believe that the way parents go about the their child’s education should be a personal decision. They say they don’t want to feel pressured by a default offer that make their child learn sign language, even if he has the possibility of avoiding it.
But supporters of the policy see it as a way to correct what they see as a long-standing anti-ASL bias. They called for equal access to spoken language and sign language, saying depriving students of ASL limits their language development and cuts them off from a major source of deaf culture.
Although bilingual programs already exist for deaf students in the United States, this is the largest public school district in the country to attempt to offer one as the default offering for deaf and hard of hearing children, according to the president of Gallaudet University, Roberta J. Cordano. LAUSD is the second largest school district by enrollment in the United States
Some deaf and hard of hearing teachers feel left behind
Months into the school year, it is unclear to what extent the bilingual program has actually been implemented. The district did not respond to NPR’s questions about the number of children currently in the program, whether any parents have withdrawn their child or who teaches the program.
A LAUSD spokesperson told NPR via email that the the district’s division of special education “works with local districts to provide access to the adopted curriculum for all families.” He said the district is working with deaf and hard of hearing partners “to roll out the resolution and will ensure families receive the necessary support.” without providing details.
The LAUSD Special Education Division is responsible for implementing the program. But some prominent proponents of the program believe it is meeting internal resistance.
“We have people who have been in our district’s special education department for a very long time who don’t believe that [a bilingual program will benefit deaf and hard of hearing kids]“said LAUSD board member Jackie Goldberg, who drafted the resolution and met with these directors earlier this year.
The LAUSD spokesperson said the bilingual program is a “critical initiative for the Division of Special Education and they have worked tirelessly to ensure this program meets the needs of Los Angeles Unified students.” .
NPR spoke with a group of LAUSD professionals focused on deaf and hard of hearing students who say they feel left in the dark about the plans for this program. Two of them are deaf themselves, including the vice principal of the district’s only day school for the deaf, and one is an audiologist who works with deaf and hard of hearing children.
They said they had not been contacted about how to get involved, although a committee of deaf and hard of hearing people is supposed to advise the district on how to implement the program. The LAUSD spokesperson did not say if the advisory board was being formed.
The district also plans to expand ASL offerings in high schools and create a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Education Department within the Special Education Division to streamline programming. A budget plan detailing the implementation of the bilingual program and these other initiatives should be announced soon, according to professionals focused on the deaf and hard of hearing students. But they added that they did not know of any deaf faculty involved in the development of this plan.
“Who will guide and make these decisions [on the budget plan]? We’re not at the table,” Lauren Maucere, deputy principal of the Marlton School for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students, said through an interpreter. “We would like to be part of the conversation about rolling out the resolution and that includes a meeting with the superintendent, ourselves.”
Spoken language versus sign language is a decades-old debate
Sign language advocates say it has been suppressed for decades.
The Milan conference in 1880 declared that oral education was superior to sign education, claiming that a focus on English would help deaf and hard of hearing people integrate properly into hearing society. The effects of that declaration can be seen to this day, said Wyatte Hall, a professor at the University of Rochester who studies early childhood language experiences in deaf communities.
“In many ways, deaf communities are still suffering from the consequences of that vote in 1880,” he said through an interpreter. “It’s embedded in the medical system and in the education system.”
Opponents of teaching ASL to deaf students say it could negatively impact their ability to learn the spoken language, isolate them from hearing people and make them less likely to succeed.
Hall disagrees. “There is no research indicating that sign languages interfere in any way with the ability to use residual hearing — whether with or without technology, or with the development of spoken language,” Hall said. “But it’s a very strong belief. What we’re talking about is belief, not evidence-based practices.”
Deaf and hard of hearing children suffer if they are denied access to sign language during the critical exposure period when babies can learn language most effectively, Hall added.
“The end result of deaf children’s denial of visual language has lifelong consequences,” he said. “All sorts of developmental areas are affected, daily functioning is affected, and we see this cumulative effect in particular in the Deaf mental health system.”
And advocates of the bilingual program say technologies like cochlear implants don’t provide perfect hearing capabilities and shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for sign language.
“Even with a cochlear implant, they are still deaf and they need to be able to communicate with deaf and hearing people,” wrote Allison Jeppsen, a mother with a child who uses implants, on the change.org petition in support of the resolution. . “In doing so, they have the opportunity to choose how they would like to continue communicating and what form(s) of communication they want to continue.”
Hall also says that “what we often see is that deaf people who grow up with sign language have more tools to successfully navigate the hearing world than children who don’t.”
Yet some parents strongly object to their children learning ASL, even when offered as an optional program. For example, Leslie Butchko, whose son is deaf, wrote in a letter to the LAUSD superintendent and board members that she and her husband wanted their son to be in classes with hearing students so that he can “focus only on oral communication”.
She said she feared removing him from regular classes could lead to ostracism or even bullying. “We wanted John to be successful academically and socially and felt it was important that he walk to school with his hearing older brother and be in classes with neighborhood children with who he could play after school,” she wrote in the letter, which was provided to NPR by the John Tracy Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that promotes speech education for deaf and hard of hearing children. He opposed the bilingual initiative.
Although the bilingual program can help expand access to ASL, Janette Durán-Aguirre, school counselor at Marlton School, says she believes the district’s special education administrators perpetuate the narrative that sign language is inferior.
“We can’t heal from this past trauma [of the suppression of ASL, Deaf students and Deaf professionals] or establish this Deaf Education Department if the people who caused harm and the people who opposed the resolution are the ones in administrative leadership roles guiding this new implementation,” Durán-Aguirre said per through an interpreter. “How can we expect this to actually progress authentically when the same individuals who are affected by this new change are the same people who caused this harm?”