May 26, 2011
Indy Deaf News is forwarding onto our readers this letter we received from Matthew S. Moore. We are not sure when it may be published in the Indianapolis Star.
Board crisis at Indiana School for the Deaf
I've sent this letter (which I've slightly revised to make it more accurate) to the Indianapolis Star, but wanted to share it with you. It gives a Deaf perspective on the controversy surrounding Governor Daniels's latest appointments to the Board of Education at Indiana School for the Deaf. Feel free to contact me if you have further questions. Members of the ISD community are trying to get the word out. Thanks.
If you have any questions, please contact me. My contact information is at the end.—MSM
To the Editors:
I’m a proud and successful alumnus of the Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD). I graduated in 1977 as Valedictorian of my class. American Sign Language (ASL) was my first language, but I’m fluent in English too. I founded and run my own independent multimedia company, MSM Productions, Ltd., which I incorporated in 1984, shortly after graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology. We celebrated our 25th anniversary in 2009. I’m a taxpayer too.
For most of its history, ISD has been a signing school. It was founded by a proud Deaf couple, William and Eliza Willard, and has acquired a well-earned reputation for innovation and quality in education of deaf children. It was one of the schools that pioneered the Bilingual ASL/English approach—welcoming ASL back into the classroom where it had long been banned, and using it to establish a foundation for literacy and academic skills.
Wherever I go, I encounter people who are familiar with ISD as an outstanding school. Its reputation for excellence extends throughout the nation. It’s the Deaf community’s “Eton.”
Governor Mitch Daniels recently appointed four new members to ISD’s Board: Ann Reifel, Mary Susan Buhner, Scott Rigney, and Lucy Witte. Of these, Ms. Reifel is the only Deaf appointee, and well-qualified, as she has had a long association with ISD—like me, she’s an ISD alumna—and has had a successful career as a teacher and ASL advocate. I know her to be a fine person, and am pleased that Gov. Daniels appointed her.
That said, I’d like to express my absolute dismay over the appointment of Ms. Buhner, Mr. Rigney, and Ms. Witte to ISD’s Board. What could have motivated Gov. Daniels to do this? On what grounds did he make this decision? What exactly are their qualifications? Were there no qualified candidates who have associations with ISD and a stake in ISD’s success as a Bilingual ASL/English school? Why were they bypassed in favor of these three?
All three are nonsigners. They can’t communicate directly with Deaf people and, moreover, have an ideological bias against signing. Significantly, all three have ties to the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf’s Indiana chapter, HEAR Indiana. Are any Star readers struck by the incongruity of this situation? Ms. Buhner and Mr. Rigney aren’t just parents of deaf children; they are actively involved with oralist advocacy. Both rejected the option of enrolling their deaf children at ISD. All three are opposed to ASL and a sign-language-based education for deaf children.
The first sentence in the introductory passage on HEAR Indiana’s homepage reads, “Hear Indiana empowers and supports individuals and families with hearing loss who communicate through listening and spoken language. We believe in early detection, intensive amplification, and ongoing intervention.” This categorically excludes ASL users like me, those of us who do not rely on our voices if we find it too difficult to properly modulate them, eschew cochlear implants or hearing aids, and who cherish ASL as our first language. HEAR Indiana’s motto is “Doing Deaf Differently.” Sounds upbeat, yes, but it’s actually a rejectionist statement, a slam against signing Deaf people. It sounds better than “Stamp Out ASL.” But that’s essentially what it means.
HEAR Indiana’s mission is to promote speech and auditory methods exclusively. It’s also heavy on promoting expensive and profitable technologies such as cochlear implants and Auditory-Verbal Therapy, an intensive form of auditory training that bans speechreading and sign language. Although there’s a carefully-worded, tactfully vague position statement on ASL, every other aspect of HEAR Indiana’s site reflects its oralist bias and nonrecognition of ASL and the signing Deaf community. ISD is not included in the “Resources ad Links” listings.
I am familiar with AGBell’s hardcore philosophy of oralism (that deaf children should be trained to communicate exclusively in speech, using speechreading and/or auditory aids or biotechnological prostheses like cochlear implants to approximate nonsigning hearing persons as much as possible) and the kind of arguments they use to dissuade parents from learning ASL and enrolling their deaf children in a school for the deaf such as ISD. A few of the favorite oralist canards are: learning ASL hinders the acquisition of speech skills; members of the signing Deaf community are “imprisoned” in silence and “isolated” from greater society; culturally-Deaf people are irrationally against speech; a child who learns to sign is “lost to the Hearing world” forever; signing is abnormal, and its use is dwindling as the ASL-using population ages; it is far more expensive to educate deaf children in ASL than in oral-auditory approaches; and so forth.
None of these are true. The fact is that early acquisition of ASL expedites and enhances the acquisition of good speech skills. Getting an early foundation in a visual language enables us to tackle the challenges of developing spoken-language skills—clear speech—and reading and writing English with greater ease.
I had speech therapy at ISD (and, when I began my education, body-pack hearing aids were mandatory for the students), and even won a speechreading competition. I have fairly clear speech, but prefer not to use my voice because can’t properly modulate my inflection, which, I’ve been told, sounds “foreign.” Instead, I whisper or speak very softly. I don’t wear a hearing aid, and certainly wouldn’t want a cochlear implant for myself. I get along just fine. And no, I don’t have a 24/7 interpreter. If I have a consultation with a lawyer, for example, we make arrangements to schedule one.
Deaf people have long recognized the value of speech training as a survival skill, and that is why speech and auditory services are offered in all schools for the deaf—even the ones with a Bilingual ASL/English philosophy, like ISD. Hearing aids have long been part of Deaf culture, and an increasing number of ASL signers and learners have cochlear implants. We differ with HEAR Indiana on the importance of ASL to our lives. HEAR Indiana’s mission is to denigrate and ignore ASL, and to encourage parents to raise deaf children who shun it; we consider ASL an absolutely essential part of our lives—both as a cherished medium of everyday communication and a vehicle for creativity.
It is simply not true that, with the benefits of cochlear implants and Auditory-Verbal Therapy, all deaf children can acquire intelligible, near-normal speech, speechreading, and auditory skills. This claim is a prime example of how AGBell instills false hopes in parents who are shocked and devastated to learn that their newborn is deaf and are anxious for assurance that s/he can indeed have a “normal” life. While it is tempting to see the CI as a “stunningly effective” aid or “treatment,” the fact is that it is imperfect technology, risky, prone to malfunction and failure, and we don’t know its long-term effects. There is a wide spectrum of outcomes, ranging from excellent to horrendous, or little or no benefit at all. That is the reality. And the reality that is not mentioned on the Oral Deaf Education network’s slickly propagandistic Websites is that an increasing number of deaf children, products of the AGBell-recommended strict oralism and Auditory-Verbal Therapy, are growing up with language deficits. Because their parents refused to learn sign or permit them to sign, they don’t have that foundation or backup.
Oral schools have traditionally used signing schools for the deaf as dumping grounds for their “failures”—deaf children who have not thrived under the oralist regimen. By the time the oral school gives up on them, they’re well past the optimum age for language acquisition. I suspect that this is the main reason why oral schools brazenly claim that their students have better achievement scores than those in signing schools—because they “weed out” their failures and the signing schools, like ISD, have an open-admittance policy. ISD welcomes deaf students with learning disabilities, dyslexia, and autism, and visual handicaps. And cochlear implants. And the obnoxiously-labeled “oral failures.”
AGBell has never made an honest disclosure on the many failures produced by oralism for every one of its vaunted successes. The Oralist philosophy promises full and comfortable assimilation of deaf people into the Hearing mainstream—a goal that has been, for too many, unattainable. I have seen this for myself—it’s not hearsay. It’s a tragic and unignorable fact of life for us in the Deaf community. Oralism has failed too many. After receiving the “benefits” of an “education” that focuses on “listening and spoken language,” too many deaf people still have poor speech skills, and since they’ve been prevented from learning sign language, at the insistence of the audiologists and other “experts” who “supported” their parents, they can’t readily communicate with culturally-Deaf people. And all too often, their literacy skills are substandard. The cochlear implant, promoted as a “miracle fix” for deaf babies, is producing a new generation of language-deprived children who have been more effectively kept away from signing than the previous generations of Dark Age children ever were. This is progress?
There is good evidence that immediate exposure to ASL benefits deaf—and hearing—babies, and promotes early development of language skills. Sign language isn’t some optional add-on or frill that a deaf child can pick up as a teenager—it is every deaf child’s right, and from the start. Sign language is the key to a deaf child’s acquisition of language, literacy, and cognitive skills.
I am concerned about AGBell’s hidden agenda. Its supporters have made no secret of their desire to establish more AVT and oral-auditory schools., and that they believe that cochlear implants should be mandatory for all deaf babies. They have noted proudly in blogs that more and more deaf children have implants, and schools for the deaf are closing. Their ironically-named Children’s Legal Advocacy Program enables parents to sue school districts that provide signing classes but not AVT—or what they label “inappropriate placements.” Other Deaf people and I are worried about the prospect of AGBell infiltrating signing schools and forcing them to become more oral-auditory-oriented. You start small, by introducing a few “reforms” and “innovations,” such as “spoken-English” classes for children with CIs (at the insistence of the parents), then remaking the school over in the “desired” image—in this case, an oralist-friendly environment. One small victory at a time. Because of its prominence. ISD can be seen as a “testing ground.” If oralists gain a foothold any ISD, you can guarantee that this scenario will be repeated at other schools.
The AVT-AGBell-CI-industry alliance has been immensely profitable for the professionals in this sector—the AVT personnel, clinicians, audiologists, CI promoters. Not a penny of this flow of wealth goes to the Deaf community, its schools, or programs for enhancing adult literacy. Zilch. Yet oralists like to accuse Deaf advocates of keeping schools for the deaf alive from mercenary motives—to guarantee that Deaf teachers continue to get their paychecks. And this represents the same mindset that forced Deaf teachers out of the profession after the oralist takeover of the schools in the late nineteenth century.
What we do not see in AGBell’s and the CI industry’s propaganda campaign is an acknowledgement of the children who do not thrive in this milieu—the ones who have to cope with discomfort, mechanical failures, incomprehension, and language deprivation. Evidently, this is a taboo topic—not to be discussed among themselves. One CI advocate-blogger admonished a young man who told the story of his physically painful CI failure that his story should not be disseminated since it would discourage parents from having their children implanted, thus scaring away potential recruits!
The oralist movement has been adept at utilizing the media to spread its propagandistic message: that oralism is a better investment than signing in a deaf child’s success, that oral-deaf persons achieve greater academic and social success, and better employment prospects, and that they’re able to grow up “normal.” Advocates have also spread myths and lies, including the outrageous claim that it costs nearly a million dollars to educate a single ASL-using deaf child, while raising an oral-deaf child with bilateral cochlear implants is far more cost-effective. I also suspect that AGBell has suppressed research that shows that children educated in ASL achieve better language comprehension and written-English skills than do those with CIs and strict oral-auditory educations.
This movement is wealthy, well-funded, influential and has seemingly limitless resources. The Oberkotter Foundation sponsors the Oral Deaf Education Website and supports oral-auditory education, including underwriting the cost of establishing new schools, distribution of the “Make a Joyful Noise” kit for parents, and funding the training of oral teachers, audiologists, and speech pathologists . . . but there is no ASL-supportive counterpart. The NAD’s budget is a mere fraction of that of AGBell’s. Everyone knows about the world-famous John Tracy Clinic. But how many parents know about, or benefit from, the outreach services provided by Gallaudet University’s Laurent Clerc Center?
Why did Governor Daniels deliberately bypass parents who do have a stake in ISD? Those whose children are attending ISD, or those who have themselves graduated from ISD, as Ms. Reifel has? Why appoint adversaries of ASL to the Board of a Bilingual ASL/English school? Doesn’t this constitute a conflict of interest?
It is unthinkable for an oral school to appoint an ASL-using Deaf person to its Board. Why, then, the reverse? If these three oralists want to serve on a school board, they can do that at St. Joseph Institute or another oral school.
This is not a diversity or cooperation issue. ISD serves as a resource center to some 2,400 deaf and hard-of-hearing students throughout the state. It is the hub of a diverse mini-community, attracting Deaf students of all colors, races, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Their parents, whatever their backgrounds, are welcome to join the PTCO. What unites them is their commitment to ISD and being part of a rich, creative ASL-using community. Appointing oralists to the Board of a signing school is tantamount to appointing whites who have enrolled their children in segregation academies to the board of a historically Black college. Or a majority of men to the board of a women’s college. Or appointing a Turkish board to an Armenian school.
The appointments of these three Board members, all of whom are oralists, are in flagrant conflict with ISD’s philosophy as a Bilingual ASL/English school, and are inappropriate. The best thing they can do for us is to resign. ISD’s Board deserves a Deaf majority and hearing members who support and care about the school—not those who want to tear it down.
Matthew S. Moore
Publisher, DEAF LIFE, DEAF LIFE Japan, and DEAF LIFE Philippines
President, MSM Productions, Ltd.
1095 Meigs Street
Rochester, NY 14620-2405