One of the basic rights children have in America is a right to an education. While I am not discounting the vast disparity in educational standards and quality for hearing children in public schools, there is a basic standard of language access. Classes are not taught in Korean or Farsi—even that comparison is lacking.
Hearing children at least have access to hear the language, however foreign. For deaf children placed in schools that do not use accommodations or use inappropriate accommodations, they don’t have this access, and can fall behind as a result. It would be more like an alien race that has a sixth sense, trying to speak to us in a mode that we physically cannot perceive.
1? What about a day program? Perhaps sending them to an oral school is the best option? Or maybe a residential school, funded by the state? There are many different options, and each one has its own merits and drawbacks. As a result of this inconsistency, deaf students in America are susceptible to receiving immensely different educations.
One solution proposed by our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a “voucher program”, which allows parents to pluck their children out of a public school and put them into a private school. This sounds like a great solution for parents who feel that their child isn’t being challenged in the traditional public school system, or for parents who feel that the school is not meeting their child’s needs.
This makes the public right of education a private good. The voucher program will inevitably leave students in the dust, but that’s been discussed extensively. Most frighteningly, DeVos’ voucher program will require students with disabilities to give up their governmental protections provided to them under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). This means that the school is not required to provide for their needs. This can include anything from extra testing time to interpreters for a deaf student.
For such a fundamental part of our education system, DeVos knows little about IDEA. In a hearing, DeVos insisted that it was up to the states to decide on IDEA enforcement, even though it is a federal law, and non-optional for states. This dramatic misconception about the most basic protections for students with disabilities is just a peek into her substantial misunderstanding of the American public school system.
Deaf students already suffer from inconsistent academic teaching in America, but equally as important as academics is the social aspect of school. It is no secret that peer interaction is essential for human development. Children learn how to navigate social situations: appropriate conversation topics, debate tactics, dispute resolution, conversational turn-taking, and compromise tactics. The interactions are different with their peers than adults, who are not their “equals”, and therefore are treated differently.
Interactions using an interpreter are not the same. Children may act differently because an adult is present, or may feel uncomfortable talking about sensitive topics. This can reduce the incidental learning that is so vital to the socio-emotional development. Think of all the things you learned from lunch table conversations with your friends that were never taught in the classroom: if no one talks with the deaf person about their relationship struggles with their new boyfriend or their plans for prom night, how is the deaf person supposed to normalize and categorize their own experiences?
This issue was apparent for Vanessa, a Deaf student who grew up in mainstream schools. Vanessa spoke of students, and sometimes even teachers, who did everything in their power to distract her from the interpreters. They gave her a hard time, causing her to withdraw and become “blunt and mean” to be able to survive.
Vanessa has always felt that the hearing world does not want her to be a part of it. This has left her uninterested in being a part of conversations within the hearing world. Her lack of access to Deaf peers growing up, outside of Deaf camps, has motivated her to become more involved with the deaf world as an adult to make up for lost time. She believes that the best option for deaf children is a Deaf residential school or a mainstream program with plenty of resources for the deaf child.
Deaf residential schools provide students with opportunities to thrive and interact with their peers, all in a language that is accessible to them. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) believes them to be the “only beneficial placement for many deaf children”. The benefit of being instructed directly in a language you have access to cannot be understated. The students are able to immerse themselves in Deaf culture as well, which can help children form a positive self-identity.
Allie, a Deaf teacher who grew up in mainstream schools, doesn’t discount her experiences with mainstream schooling, but concedes that the lack of Deaf friends was one thing she missed during her childhood. She didn’t know she needed that connection, and doesn’t want the same thing for any deaf children she may have. Deaf residential schools allow children to explore their Deaf identity in a supportive and inclusive environment, and she says this is important for at least part of deaf children’s schooling.
However, there are several potential barriers for students who would attend deaf residential schools. First, states are only required to provide one deaf school for students in their state. For large states such as Texas or California, this means that your child may be several hours away from you. This can be nerve-wracking for parents—what if there is an emergency?
Additionally, some residential schools do not allow students to stay the weekend. This means that the students who live farther away from home are put on buses or planes to go back and forth to school: a hell of a commute for children. Some states have attempted to combat this by setting up day programs throughout the state, but the class sizes are smaller, and transportation back and forth can easily eat up several hours of the day.
Another issue with residential schools is that the quality of residential schools is not equal. States that have little money or poor attendance have difficulty keeping up with simple repairs. There are many examples of parents who moved across the nation to put their child in a better state school, which only exacerbates the problem: less students equals less government funding, which means a deteriorating school which starts the cycle over again.
DeVos’ plan will also exacerbate this problem. Most deaf schools are, unfortunately, dependent on donations from alumni and current students’ families. If the families who can afford to participate in this voucher program pull out from the public schools, the students who cannot get left behind. The wealthier families are, naturally, the ones who are more likely to make a donation to the school. Without their financial support, the left-behind students suffer.
This program is also not financially viable. Wisconsin tried out a program similar to the one she is proposing: for 202 students with disabilities to attend private schools, it cost public school districts$2.4 million in state aid. Because the private schools could easily ignore IDEA, this program was less beneficial to the students, while still being as costly to taxpayers. Additionally, the financial aid that would have been given to the public schools for these students was taken away, which is possibly harmful to the schools.
Overall, Betsy Devos’ plan is dangerous to students with disabilities, and could leave students unprotected and vulnerable to private schools’ whims. It also aggravates the social and economic inequality within our school systems that children are already all too aware of. For the sake of our children, I hope that this plan does not come to fruition.
1 Interpreters are currently not required to be certified to interpret in educational settings. Additionally, interpreting services may not be available in rural areas.