Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Let's Turn the Tide

At the start of each summer, I browse through Amazon to see what new professional books need to become part of my library.  I just finished reading one such book: Turning the Tide: Making Life Better for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Schoolchildren by two Deaf researchers Gina A. Oliva and Linda Risser (2014).

While reading this book, I felt angry, excited, humbled, overwhelmed, validated, and inspired.  My book is filled with countless page tabs, holding the places of key information and statements made by the authors that I do not want to forget.

Yes, many of the suggestions for educational and social improvement the authors recommend are ones me and many others have been suggesting for years.  Others are new and energizing.  However, what make this book unique and exciting is how the suggestions came about.  You see, this book is actually a qualitative study of the experiences of deaf and hard of hearing adults ages 18-34 who spent at least 5 of their K-12 years "alone in the mainstream".  This means that there were no other DHH students in their classes, school, or even district.  Over 100 Deaf adults shared their mainstream experiences either via focus groups or online surveys.

I have read so many professional journal articles and books talking about the plight of deaf education and what needs to be done to make it better.  In Turning the Tide, however, we hear it straight from the horse's mouth.  We learn firsthand of how it is to be mainstreamed alone.

As a hearing professional, I am fully invested in deaf education reform; I spend many hours of my personal time doing what I can to improve the lives of DHH children.  However, I have never experienced what my students go through daily.  Only after reading this book do I get a glimpse of what life is really like for those "solitaire" students we itinerant teachers serve.

This book is full of personal experiences of the trials and tribulations that these DHH participants experienced as they struggled through their mainstream education.  I cannot possibly do it justice by summarizing it here.  However, I can say that their "saving grace" was the opportunities they had to get their "deaf fix". Whether it was summer camp, weekend programs or special trips, all participants cherished the opportunities they had to be with other DHH children.

Social Capital
I have been preaching and blogging about the social isolation DHH students feel as they are educated at their neighborhood school. Here is what the adults share in the book:

  • Only 25% of the survey participants said they had hearing friends in school, which means a full 75% of the DHH respondents felt they did not have any hearing friends throughout their schooling!
  • Only 12% of the surveyed DHH adults had other deaf and hard of hearing friends while in school, most met at summer camps or other events so that the friends lived out of town or out of state.  88% of these adults went through their schooling without having a DHH friend!  Can you imagine going through most, if not all, of your entire educational career and not having a friend that is just like you?  This also conflicts with IDEA that says students are supposed to have opportunities for direct communication with peers in their primary language.  This includes DHH peers!
Social capital - building friendships and relationships - is crucial to the educational experience of all children.  It is through these relationships that much incidental learning occurs in children.  If a child has minimal social capital, just imagine how much incidental learning they are being deprived of.

"The major different between friendships with deaf peers and friendships with hearing peers were that the deaf student was able to (a) be a full and equal participant; (b) converse with ease; (c) feel respected, accepted, and valued; and (d) feel emotionally safe and supported. (p. 35).

Don't we want all children to have friendships where they feel equal contributors in the friendship, that are not merely superficial due to limited communication, and can feel like they truly belong?  If so, then why do we continue to educate DHH children in isolation?  Why do districts still think it is OK to have the 3 elementary-aged DHH students go to 3 different schools instead of the same school?  Why is going to the neighborhood school still more important than the psychological well-being of DHH children?  There is legal precedent that allows DHH children to be "clustered" in one school.  We just need to let administrators know that it is OK to do so.

Pooling Resources
 Ever since the passage of IDEA an ever increasing number of DHH students are being served closer to their families in their neighborhood school, whether or not this is the most appropriate placement for them.  There was a time when the Kentucky School for the Deaf had over 400 students.  Today there is a little over 100.  What this means is there is a significant need for more DHH teachers and interpreters throughout the state to serve all these students being educated in their neighborhood schools.  Kentucky only has one teacher preparation program that graduates a handful of DHH teachers each year.  It also has only two interpreter training programs whose graduates may choose to enter PreK-12 interpreting, adult education or community interpreting.  Therefore with the current system, there is a high demand for teachers and interpreters, yet there is not enough supply to meet the demand.

Oliver and Risser share a study conducted by Carol Schwietzer of Wisconsin which studied itinerant teachers (pgs 109-111).  She found that:

  • 70% (1,500 out of 2,200) DHH students in Wisconsin were being served by itinerant teachers.
  • 1,000 of these students were alone in the mainstream

After calculating for travel time and actual service time, it was determined that the students were not being served well in the itinerant model.  Some itinerant teachers were spending up to 50% of their work day traveling!  (I wonder if this has been done in Kentucky.)  The stakeholders were then brought together to find a solution - creating cluster programs throughout the various geographical areas of the state.  By creating these programs, resources were pooled together to ensure that there were sufficient and quality DHH program team members, including DHH teachers, interpreters, SLPs, and assistants.  They were better able to support the families and the students' academic and social needs.  They had participation and support from special education directors from the very beginning.

The clusterization of DHH students is not a new phenomenon in the U.S.  Several states have gone this route.  Educators and other professionals working with DHH students realize that in order to truly provide a continuum of services options for all DHH students, to provide them with social capital, and to allow them for direct communication and instruction in their natural language (not through an interpreter), creating clusters/regional programs in conjunction with the school for the deaf is the best way to ensure all DHH students are afforded a high quality education in their primary language so they can be college and career ready.

If you care about the education of students who are deaf and hard of hearing, then you must read and fully digest this book.  Only then will you truly understand what we are doing to these students by educating them "alone in the mainstream".

It is time for Kentucky and other states to strengthen their schools for the deaf and create regional centers so that DHH children are no longer isolated and that they can finally receive high quality education!

In my next blog I will share what I promise to do to improve the education of my students.  What will you do?

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