Deaf education is a FUNNY thing. I have a bit of experience in the field – fourteen years in South Australia, Victoria and Northern Territory. I have met some wonderful teachers of the deaf along the way. People I have worked with and aspire to be more like. Likewise I also have met some shockers – people who don’t care about the educational welfare of their students and are too comfortable to leave. Inspirational students have astounded me and restored my faith in deaf education. Some from more difficult backgrounds have concerned me. It is a mixed bag.
Recently I was talking to a mother of a deaf daughter who I have had the privilege of working with. We were discussing our children and where we would be sending them to secondary school, the pros and cons and so forth. Along the way our conversation touched on deaf facilities in Victoria. We shared similar thoughts. Do others also feel as we do?
The Victorian Government oral deaf facilities appear to be in more affluent suburbs. Mount View Primary School is in the very middle to upper middle class leafy suburb of Glen Waverley (my old school as a matter of fact). Taralye (non-Government funded kindergarten) is in the prestigious part of Blackburn. Brighton Primary School is right smack bang in the wealthy kids’ playground. They all promote an oral philosophy. Their location almost guarantees that the wider hearing student population attending that educational setting will have a more stable home life, less behavioural issues, less poverty, better nutrition and so on. There would most likely be more emphasis on education rather than discipline and restorative practices.
The Deaf Facilities at Government schools that promote an Auslan/ oral combined method are usually in the lower middle class to lower socio-economic regions such as Frankston, Ringwood, St Albans and Sunshine to name a few. When schools have to constantly deal with socio-economic issues, education can come a distant second in priorities. Yet these schools are where Auslan education is mostly based. There is often no choosing which facility and school is best for the family. It is a game of geographical luck and hoping that education trumps discipline and social issues at that school.
In regional Victoria, there are even less choices for parents of deaf children. It is interesting to note that most of the Deaf Facilities are located in the areas where there is a higher population of lower socio-economic families. My friend and I discussed why this would be and we answered in unison – “Funding for the schools.” The schools in those areas often want more funding for the extra programs that they must run. They are often more willing to take those programs others would say are in the “too hard basket”. The schools in the more affluent areas usually would not need the extra funding or want to risk their respected reputations.
The Education Department in its finite wisdom established Deaf Facilities in the less respected areas. This can and has backfired, especially in regional areas. Even if a school is quite committed and has brilliant teachers, if there are too many students with behavioural or learning problems, this affects the morale and character of a school. Parents hear of this. They form ideas and judgements. I am guilty of this with my boys’ education but at least I can choose from several schools. How much more severe is it for a deaf child who has only one option and often quite a distance from home, particularly in regional areas.
Deaf student numbers are dwindling as parents opt for mainstreaming. If the deaf facility was in a better and more affluent area with a stronger academic background, would the situation be different? If the deaf facility had a more pure oral focus would more students come? You bet. I have had different parents tell me this to my face. Despite having teachers of the deaf, the latest technology, sound proofed rooms etc – all this is squat if the school has either Auslan incorporated into the learning program or a ‘reputation’ for students with behavioural or learning issues’.
The private schools and Catholic sector are another example. Not one of them, to my knowledge, promotes Auslan. One will use Signed English only. The others promote a singular oral/aural philosophy. Their numbers are steady and the envy of other Deaf Facilities. They often have brilliant and very thorough work programs for their deaf students. On the flip side of the coin some of their students could benefit from a bilingual model but cannot access this.
There are teachers and people who believe that an oral deaf student, especially with cochlear implants, can hear everything that is said. Sadly this is rarely the case and this impacts greatly on the deaf child’s wellbeing. What happens if you have a deaf child who uses Auslan? Which private school deaf/hearing unit would accept him? Where can that child go? Why do none of them, or other private schools, offer placements and support for Auslan and oral communication modes? It smacks of elitism and a lack of understanding of the linguistic and educational value of Auslan. Who misses out? Without a doubt it’s the deaf students who are perceived as using the ‘wrong’ communication mode.
The Victorian College of the Deaf is an interesting contrast. It is in an affluent area. It shares the same location as a well respected private school. It is open to deaf students only. The school promotes an Auslan/English bilingual program and has wonderful facilities. However parents today appear very much in favour of mainstreaming their children. Exclusive schools for the deaf seem less attractive. VCD, despite its location, is struggling to attract primary aged students. It is cruel but fair to say it receives a high proportion of deaf high school rejects. The students who don’t cope in mainstream education or have an extra disability often get pushed to VCD. I suspect that if VCD was mainstreamed with hearing students and offered an oral program instead for its deaf students, the numbers would increase significantly. This seems to be an indication of how the establishment looks down its nose at Auslan. Simply said, Auslan is valued less than oral speech and Deaf facilities, including VCD, receive many of the cast offs that the elite see as failures.
Many schools, teachers, parents and the community in general do not understand how deafness impacts on the child’s life. Too many think the impact of hearing loss can be rectified or reduced with amplification. Little consideration is given to the linguistic, social, emotional and mental impact of growing up deaf. The geographical destination of the bulk of schools that provide Auslan suggests that Auslan is regarded as second class. If the Education Department was serious about Auslan they would provide choice and not just at schools that are crying out for funding. Yup! – Deaf education is a FUNNY thing!
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We are back! Our readers would not let us go. We tried to just fade away but popular demand, kind words and an obvious need has meant we are keeping The Rebuttal running. Both the Ezine and the Blog.
Marnie Kerridge has agreed to be the chief editor of The Rebuttal. In tune with this new role she has presented our COMEBACK article.
Marnie’s article touches on a subject very much THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Everyone knows it, but no one will discuss it openly. Namely that education that utilises Auslan is a very poor second cousin to oral education.
Before Oral Education advocates roll their eyes and say “Here we go again” remember that Cora Barclay television advertisement. Where the little boy starts signing, saying that in years gone by this is how deaf people used to communicate. He then breaks out into speech and exclaims “BUT NOW THERE IS A BETTER WAY!”
Or the delightful Dr Bruce Sheppard from the Sheppard Centre in Sydney, that staunch advocator of all things oral who had this to say about Auslan in a radio interview with Phillip Adams in 2006, “… But especially we wanted our children to develop language. Because it’s not well known that the average profoundly deaf person who signs generally doesn’t develop terribly good language and they often can’t understand a great deal of what they read and they can’t make other people understand what they’re thinking.”
Of course Mr Sheppard neglects to state that deaf kids that don’t succeed orally or with their cochlear implants, and these are more common than people would like to admit, face exactly the same issues. Usually once they have FAILED they are introduced to signing after their language acquisition has been horribly impeded by this obsession with all things oral.
When oral education for deaf kids works, it’s terrific. When it does not, it’s tragic. This is equally true for Auslan, for without the right support for parents and deaf kids to properly acquire Auslan they are also doomed to failure.
The consequence of this failure, both oral and signing, is that the deaf kids are deeply disadvantaged. They struggle to learn, they struggle to communicate, they struggle to mature and in latter life can suffer any number of mental health issues related to isolation and low self-esteem. It is not pretty.
This is why Auslan and oral education must be on an equal footing. They must exist side by side. And please do not bring up that old furphy that signing impedes speech development. There is enough research around to show that oral and signing methods complement each other. Goodwyn et al, 1988, carried out longitudinal studies of deaf kids that were provided access to signing and oral education. The result? Kids with access to sign language and oral methods performed better in speech acquisition and language tests. It is time to give Auslan the prestige that it deserves. It is not just a tool; it is a vital part of the language and human development for deaf kids.
We can start by giving the iconic Victorian College of the Deaf recognition for the programs it provides. We can start if we stop using it as a dumping ground for students that have failed in the mainstream and oral methods. We can start by recognising its TRUE value and not just the value of the real estate that the college resides on.
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Article: Marnie Kerridge
Editorial: Gary Kerridge