October 12, 2009

New boss stirs communication controversy at Utah deaf school

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The headline in the Salt Lake Tribune’s story says: “New boss, new language skills, focus for Utah deaf school.” But it might as well have said. New boss, same controversy.

The new director of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind is a proponent of oral deaf education and has already apparently alienated a share of the deaf community with his emphasis on oral education for young deaf students. His argument is based in part on advances in cochlear implant technology that allow some deaf children to receive digital sound impulses through a device implanted under their skin. The device does not restore hearing in the sense that hearing people have it, but it does provide cues that can help deaf students interpret sound. It is not a replacement for hearing.

The new director, Steven Noyce, told the Salt Lake Tribune that he plans to emphasize oral education in early interventions with young deaf children. He also said he would not abandon sign language, but wanted parents to have more information before choosing a means of teaching their children language.

“Parents need to make that choice,” he says. “And they need to understand those choices before making them.”

Sign language has a long, proud heritage around the world. It has a richness that those who have not studied it may not appreciate. The reality for many deaf children is that they need all the communication tools they can get – sign language, speech reading, sound “education” that helps them respond to noise, and speech training. And they need people willing to give it to them.

It’s ironic that some early childhood educators advocate teaching hearing babies and young children sign language to help them learn to read, while at the same time oral educators of the deaf de-emphasize sign education, or scare new parents into believing that to teach one way will mean the child will never learn another.

The early childhood brain is in such a miraculously plastic stage that to shut off either channel – sign or oral – would be a waste. Deaf kids shouldn’t have to make that choice. They deserve both.

–Carol Smith

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