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!


Editorial Comment

Welcome Back to The Rebuttal!

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.

Remember, The Rebuttal is here for you. If you have something to say or want an article published, please write into us. As long as your article or what you have to say does not personally attack individuals we will do all we can to publish what you write.


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Article: Marnie Kerridge

Editorial:  Gary Kerridge

6 thoughts on “Elitism

  1. Great reading article – and can completely agree with all those issues! Pretty much along those lines has been said the same to my face by many parents I have worked with along the way in two different states!

    The question will come….. What can be done and how can it be fixed??? The new Victorian Deaf Education institution that has been set up – what’s really happening there? Will they improve the future of deaf education in the future? I have not had the opportunity to hear much what is happening in that area.. That is another debate ……..

    Well done Marnie!

  2. Good article, well written.

    There is another area that needs to be looked at as well – tertiary education for the deaf students. Lack of support services, iffy funding promises, only one centre in Australia that ‘caters’ for students who are interested in Auslan. AND there are very low opportunities for university graduates to work afterwards, most are in very narrow fields. If all three levels of education (primary, secondary and tertiary) for deaf students are looked at, there will be more noted changes and opportunities for students to choose from despite their locations, if Auslan are being included across the board, along with oral and cochlear programs.

    It would be interesting research to look at the wellbeing, mental heath and happiness in deaf people, who have been taught in either oral or sign language at schools, with and without cochlear implants.

    Anyway, back to your point on Auslan provided deaf facilities at the middle to low- socio-economic regions. The no-brainer answer to this is that the higher socio-economic folks are more vocal and more included to support (either with funds, time or words) the petitions for such ‘assimilation’ support for deaf students in their areas. The folks from low to middle socio-economic regions tend not to have time and money to lobby for such support so they’d accept what is being offered with sweeteners (i.e., more funding for schools that accepts the ‘rejects’).

    So with that, I think the Deaf education will always be a see-saw situation and that the lower number of job opporuntities for the deaf individuals, not much will be happening despite how long or how loud the Deaf community discuss about this big issue.

    The day when the general community see more deaf individuals who actually use sign language having higher profiles in the wider work force and would readily support the whole community, not only the Deaf community, it will make a bigger impact on the needs for change in the education system for deaf students.

    From my own humble view, those deaf schools are actually just the token education institutions for deaf children who are having trouble adjusting or adapting to the ‘hearing world’ (i.e., rejects that ‘cannot’ be assimilated) and those institutions could in a way encourage the type of thinking in the society, and to please the deaf communities. The mainstreaming system is no better either, it also could be used to please those who hoped their deaf children would be more assimilated and may get a better teaching staff that could make a difference somewhat.

    To summarise all what I was saying that the deaf education is placed between a rock and a hard place for all concerned…

    Time for us to think outside the usual box!

    • Ahhh yes but arguably tertiary outcomes are significantly impacted by schooling. Poor career advice, low expectations, lack of deaf life skills etc already put deaf kids behind. Many have no idea how to use an interpreter or how to advocate and get what they require. Higher Education has much better support than TAFE across Australia. State funded education like TAFE and school get a raw deal.

      The employment outcomes are not solely from the tertiary experience either. This comes from a variety of factors including prejudice, discrimination and other factors already listed. It goes without saying success at tertiary education is enhanced when academic outcomes at school are good. Often they’re not and the support offered at tertiary level can only fix this problem to such a degree. The bigger issue is SCHOOL! This is not to say the other areas of tertiary and employment are not significant but SCHOOL gives one the base to succeed at the other levels. Screw this up then the consequences are dire.

      There are several research papers on mental health in cochlear implant kids. Merv Hyde did a fairly significant one, you can find the abstract of this at http://jdsde.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/03/02/deafed.enr001.abstract – though you will need to subscribe to see the full paper. A Google search will identify several other research papers on the topic although these papers concentrate more on cochlear implants.

      The bigger issue in regard to socioeconomic impact may well be attitude. You are correct that the richer areas have better contacts. They have more money to push the boat, the parents are better educated .. in short they have all they need to influence the system. They have critical friends. But we in the Deaf community can be our own worst enemy in regard to getting CRITICAL FRIENDS …. There is a tendency for many Deaf community representatives in Auslan to be very guarded of their patch, even elitist. Many potential critical friends are put offside by the aloofness displayed … perhaps the thinking outside the square that you suggest has to begin with our own attitudes. Our stories and our networking may well be what we must work on .. if people can relate better to our needs we may well get more support. It may not just all be about the rich and the poor but there is no denying it is a significant factor.

      Thanks for your response .. it gives much food for thought and debate.

  3. Email here from Timothy .. emailed to the rebuttal address.

    Welcome back Gary and Marnie…

    Your article is very interesting. I acknowledge that there were so many Deaf students and adults have behavioural or learning problems due to insufficient Deaf education.

    If you look at the Deaf education history especially Braidwood School for Deaf in UK .

    I remembered reading the Deaf history many years ago that the Braidwood School had secrets for almost a century in 1800’s due to some business reasons. They taught Deaf students in oral and education. I was told that they were very successful. It is interesting to know that when Deaf students left Braidwood School , they have no problems communicating with the Deaf community in UK because surprise, they were very influenced in BSL.

    I think it’s the founder’s son finally revealed the secret to public after one hundred year or so. The secret was when Deaf students first entered the Braidwood School ; they must first learn the Deaf sign language or BSL before they can start learning oral and education. Unfortunately, one of the forefathers after the late Thomas Braidwood in early 1900’s, he had decided to remove the sign language in classes and focus on oral education only.

    They had Braidwood School set up in America , but it was short lived.

    Interesting, the town in NSW called Braidwood (an Australian surgeon and explorer) is a cousin of Thomas Braidwood who founded the Deaf school in UK .

    Anyway, I always said for many years that the use of AUSLAN has help me improved speaking, because I’ve learned hearing people’s conversations via interpreters. Unfortunately today there is no special program such as AUSLAN speech therapist and also I have no hearing aids. This has limited my opportunities in my career.

    If there is one, I would be happy to put my hands up to be involved in the “AUSLAN speech therapy” program if they provide me the hearing aids.

    The purpose of me to learn speak is for my work only. My speaking is not my primary language, but it is one of my communication skills.

    My primary language is definite Deaf, AUSLAN.


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