Technology fuels deaf education debate

    Delaware is building a new, state-of-the-art school for the deaf. But it arrives at a time when medical advances are enabling more deaf children to take part in mainstream education.

    Hearing implants are an increasingly popular treatment for children born deaf. The technology has dramatically changed the way children learn language — so much so that some traditional school for the deaf has closed. Delaware is bucking the trend by building a new, state-of-the-art school. The school embodies the tension between preserving Deaf language and culture, and a technology that offers the deaf a chance to hear. WHYY’s health and science reporter Kerry Grens has more.


    Radio Transcript:

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    Kathryn Hall was a few months old when her mother Ellen noticed that something was different about her.

    Ellen Hall: It took a little while. She had had hearing tests and we were told that she could hear. And finally at the age of 13 months she was retested and then we were told that she was deaf.

    Profoundly deaf. In both ears. Hearing aids could not help her. But there was another option: an implant in the ear that could give Kathryn the ability to hear sound. Ellen Hall: It was really easy for us. We hear and we wanted her to be able to hear and that technology was available, so we though, why not?

    Hall’s response is common; 96 percent of children born deaf have hearing parents. Kathryn Hall is now nine years old, and both her ears have tiny coiled transmitters sending sound to her brain.

    Kathryn Hall: It’s like, hard to hear because it’s an implant and you can’t hear what the real voice is. But it’s useful and everything. I’m glad I have it because I can hear like everyone else.

    Seven years ago, Kathryn’s parents made a decision not to send her to the old Delaware School for the Deaf. Mom Ellen says she wanted Kathryn to be immersed in spoken language – and the Deaf school focused on sign language. Still, Kathryn struggled.

    Ellen Hall: She went to a regular pre-school but didn’t understand what was going on for several years. So there really isn’t an educational setting previous to kindergarten for kids like Kathryn.

    The Delaware School for the Deaf’s director, Della Thomas, says that might have been the case years ago, but the school is now a good fit for kids like Kathryn.

    Thomas: It’s a bilingual approach, balanced bilingual approach. We’re not only doing American Sign Language, but we’re also supporting oral/aural development for kids depending on what they need.

    The school has several speech pathologists, who spend time with kids on spoken language. Thomas says the new, $43 million dollar state school, set to open in 2011 in Newark, will be even more supportive for kids with implants. It will have enhanced sound systems for hearing students and language rooms where parents can observe therapies.

    Thomas: The more open we are to supporting the needs of all deaf and hard of hearing kids in whatever situation they’re in, the more accessible we are for the state.

    But all students will still learn American Sign Language, and they won’t spend all day in speaking and hearing classes. Thomas says it’s a language safety net for kids who don’t adapt to their implants.


    This video by Advanced Bionics, a manufacturer of cochlear implants, explains how the implants restore hearing:


    Roberta Golinkoff, a language acquisition expert at the University of Delaware, disagrees with that approach. She says children need to be bathed in the language they’re going to use most — and not just use it part-time. She recently spoke of concerns about the school to the Delaware State Council for Persons with Disabilities. 

    Golinkoff: American Sign Language remains an option, but not a necessity anymore for most deaf and hard of hearing children. However, knowing American Sign Lanugauge is a necessity for children who attend the DSD. Therefore, the program at Delaware School for the Deaf does not meet the educational needs of deaf and heard of hearing children who use spoken language.

    Yet – as Ellen Hall found out – kids with implants don’t always find the right supports in in mainstream schools either. Nick Fina is part of the deaf education group in Delaware called Choices. Fina says that some members of his group are concerned about allocating resources to a new school when mainstreaming is becoming more popular and services in those schools are in need.

    Fina: If spending $43 million on the school is going to take away from the opportunities of what if probably going to be a significant majority of people who want their children educated in a different way, then it’s not a good thing.

    But Fina, who himself wears a cochlear implant, says the school may be essential to preserving a culture and language that appears to be threatened by implants and mainstream education. Deaf culture rose out of discrimination, and gave people with hearing loss a language, a community, and a fair shot at learning. To lose all that, Fina says, would be a tragedy.

    Fina: Those people who are in deaf culture and who fear for the future are not unwise to do so. I feel badly about that. I truly do. I feel in my heart that’s it’s a bad thing that this is happening, but it’s happening and we can’t do too much about it.

    Unless the school can do what Della Thomas wants it to: be a place for all kids in Delaware born with hearing loss, no matter their situation.

    In this video posted on YouTube, blogger “Geo” of discusses his personal struggle with the decision of whether or not to get implanted.


    More info:

    National Association of the Deaf: Position Statement on Cochlear ImplantsFDA website: Cochlear Deaf culturePBS: Sound and Fury

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