Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Great Debate

I am learning ASL as I mentioned last time. I also added some web resources I have found to that post for those of you who might be interested.

My hearing loss was discovered when I was a kid and they decided I didn't need sign language as I could hear well enough to integrate into normal society. Although that means now I have to learn it as an adult as a second language, it wasn't until recently that I learned what that meant in a broader context.

It means I was raised "Oralist". You see, among adults there has been a huge debate about how to educate the deaf, but more specifically it often falls under "what to do with the deaf kids". It's a debate that still rages quietly even now and as the children involved often have the decision made for them at a young age, it is still a very important discussion. There is a lot of bitterness and pretentious attitudes around this subject. It isn't a real violent debate, but talk to any audiologist, Deaf or HH person, or doctor in the field and the issues are there under the surface.

This is the Coke vs. Pepsi, Democrat vs. Republican, or Star Destroyer vs. Enterprise debate of the Deaf world and it has been going on for almost two centuries here in the US and apparently as far back as Socrates and Aristotle in the rest of the world.

Pictured: The the debate that filled a thousand forum threads.

So yes, there is a lot of history here. The two main divisions about deafness center around Deaf Culture that views deafness as socio-linguistic minority culture with their own sophisticated language (ASL) and the "Medical" view that sees it as a disability and focuses on using technology and treatment to bring deaf individuals as close to the "normal" human condition as possible, able to communicate with speech and hearing. I don't side entirely with either, but I'll expand on this a bit later.

The issue in deaf education is whether to focus on Oralist vs. Manualist methods:

Auditory-Oralist or Oralism (wiki) is the idea that through auditory and linguistic training, a deaf individual should be encouraged to integrate as much as possible into the normal hearing society. Language, speech reading or lip reading, speech therapy, and using as much residual hearing as possible with hearing aids and Cochlear implants are the common focus. Sign language is highly discouraged as it is believed to keep deaf people from integrating in hearing culture. Teaching Oralism is a slow process and is often criticized for decreasing literacy, delaying development, and isolating deaf individuals socially.

The two best known modern Oralist centers in the US are:
Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech

Manualist simply means Sign-based. It encourages communication through sign language. By giving the deaf, and children in particular, a full fledged language to communicate with, they will thrive academically and be able to develop naturally academically and socially. Manualism also encourages human rights, Deaf culture, community, and personal identity.

The best known manualist school in the US is Gallaudet University

A Brief History:

I have been alluding to this, but to really understand the debate and the issues you absolutely have to know the history of Oralism and Manualism in the US. I'll try to summarize it as briefly as possible.

In 1815 Thomas Gallaudet traveled to Europe to find better ways to educate and communicate with his deaf daughter. After being turned away several times, he eventually ended up in France at the French National Institute, the first public school for the deaf. He met Laurent Clerc, a deaf Frenchman who taught him to sign. Together they returned to the US and founded the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. This was the beginning of what would later become ASL. They taught and employed both deaf and hearing teachers and founded other pro-signing schools across the US. Sign language existed before this in the US, but they helped popularize and standardize it. It was often seen as a beautiful and elegant way to communicate up to this point.

A wise man with glasses ca. 1830
(aka Thomas Gallaudet)
There were also several schools for Oralist style teaching at the time backed by several influential people. The most famous proponent was Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the inventor of the telephone). Bell's mom started losing her hearing when he was 12 and his dad worked as an authority in phonetics and speech disorders. Alexander Bell also became a teacher working with deaf students and over time fell in love with and married one of them, a Miss Mabel Hubbard who had lost her hearing at age 5 from illness. Mabel would become one of the lauded success stories of Oralism. For Alexander Bell, both his parents and wife influenced his career profoundly in the field of acoustics and sound. Bell was actually friends with Thomas Gallaudet's son, but they disagreed profoundly about sign language and Oralism.

An important guy with a beard ca 1914.
(aka Alexander Graham Bell)

Following the Civil war and up to about 1880 there was much debate between these two groups. There was actual some fear of this minority group with its own language and sub-culture and the idea that through science and proper teaching they could simply be assimilated into proper society gained traction. Members of the hearing community who were in favor of oralism took offense to deaf people having their own group identity and what they saw as refusal to integrate within the greater community. Deaf children would no longer have to be isolated from society just because they were taught the wrong language. You might remember this is the same sad period in which forced assimilation of Native Americans and other native groups all over the world was taking place.

Bell would help legitimize Oralism as the scientific view and by 1880 a number of powerful people had managed to make Oralism the established and "correct" method of deaf education. Bell himself viewed deafness as something like a disease that ought to be eradicated. Oralists in general saw the deaf population as a debilitating influence on society and wanted them to assimilate into the hearing majority culture, forcing the closure of schools for the deaf, their clubs and publications, and the suppression of sign language.

Most all of the deaf schools were taken over by Oralist and hearing teachers and deaf teachers were fired outright. Oralism was the primary focus of teaching and students often had their hands tied behind their back to prevent any signing. They would only be transferred to the manualist classes if they were an "oralist failure". Signing flourished however, but in secret and away form the teachers, but was outlawed in most public and private schools. Often students would be forced into public schools where they were expected to simply assimilate. This often didn't work as their were no support services for this and the students were very isolated. It wasn't long before people realized that the Oralist approach was hurting deaf students academically and literacy among deaf children plummeted, but it was always the student's fault, not the teachers.

This continued until about the 1960's when some hybrid methods started to be popularized. It was thought that the focus should be on communication through many methods (including sign language), not the rigid focus on lip reading and mimicking of hearing society. In 1965 Congress issues the Babbidge Report on oral deaf education and concludes that it has been a "dismal failure." Manualism starts to gain popularity again throughout the 1970's. The Civil Right movement also helped with the conception on the Deaf community as a group with rights and deserving recognition. "Total Communication" becomes the basis for new guidelines on deaf education in schools and in the 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act increased the access to resources. ASL is now the 4th most common language spoken in the US.

That's a lot of history, but even with all that I glossed over a lot of important details. You might find this

American Deaf Culture: Historical Timeline page to be a fascinating read if you want more information. It also includes history on deaf issues goign all the way back to 1000BC.

The last statistics I saw on education methods for Deaf and HH people was 53% were educated oralist, 11% manualist, and 36% both.

Modern Variations:

A lot has come out of all that history and discussion of Deaf education. Most of what I already discussed is still being debated, but one major thing happening right now is the debate over Cochlear Implants (which I will talk about in detail in another post). Essentially, they are hearing aides that can be implanted permanently into the ear. The modern Oralist push is coming from companies that sell these as it gives an option to "give people back their lost hearing enabling them to function like normal again." However, this is often pushed at a young age, even infants, and there is a lot of money involved, they cost about $30K per ear and this isn't covered by insurance. But what parent wouldn't want to give their child the biggest advantage over a "debilitating handicap" as early as possible? The backlash is "why permanently mutilate children and give them no choice later?" Even with implants, It's an ongoing debate. The truth is, implants only restore some hearing and they will still need to learn sign language and use text services on telephones and use captions on TV. These children also still have to be put in special programs for kids with implants, so it has created a kind of third wheel in deaf education. A newer implant is being targeted at people with only partial hearing loss (like me) and I am still waiting to see how these change things. Adults that are profoundly deaf who get implants can see some increase in ability to perceive sounds, but there might be some ostracization from their Deaf friends.

What Does All This Mean To Me Personally?

In a nutshell, the one group focuses on technology and methods for curing hearing loss and the other group tries to focus on the whole person, socially and mentally. I might be slanted in my view, but I can't disagree entirely with modern Oralists. The technology is incredible and there are times (frequently) when I wish I could hear normally. I try to accept what I have been given. Hearing loss is not a curse, but it does mean I have to compensate for my limitations.

Oralists approaches can and do work okay for Hard-of-Hearing individuals like myself. If you retain some or even significant hearing, with some hearing aides and special considerations, such as people occasionally being patient with you, you can function pretty well in "hearing society." My hearing loss was discovered when I was about 8 years old and I had already learned how to read lips on my own quite proficiently. That is something I never had to be taught. I was compensating on my own to what I thought was normal. When I was in elementary school I sometimes used a special pieces of technology to help hear teachers better and I had periodic meetings with speech therapists. More to the point though, this approach doesn't require anyone to change their lifestyle and it is "easy". My family didn't have to learn sign language or pay for any special schooling. I wasn't alienated from friends and extended family who would never want to learn things like ASL. I was part of regular society and never felt an urge to be part of the Deaf community. In that respect, I was the perfect creation of the Oralist's philosophy.

As my hearing has degraded though, the flaws have become more evident. I can still hear a lot, but there seems to be a threshold I crossed where my previous tools for compensating aren't good enough any more. As my wife says, "Now I have to go back and learn how to be a deaf person." What she means is, there are things I used to be able to do, but can't now. I need to go back and learn more tools and take advantage of more resources that are available to individuals with more profound hearing loss. Some things I should have learned as a child but didn't (ASL) and other things I am just now discovering, such as employment rights and legal issues, where to find support, and what things are legal and what crosses the line.

It is true, we live under equal opportunity laws that prevent discrimination, but that is only part of the story. I'll expand this in another post, but you still have to be able to perform the "critical functions of the job" and more and more that means phone support and other similar things. Employers only have to provide "reasonable accommodation." I have to, as an employee, entirely overcome the effect of the "disability" and fulfill the expectations or I can't do the job at all. Sometimes the technology or money just isn't there and I am still being compared on performance reviews to people without these issues.

So I think there is a place for technology and it is naive to think you can remove yourself entirely from society and form your own community. There will always be people who love you or jobs or opportunities that require interaction with people who don't care about hearing loss or the Deaf community. I think Deaf and HH people have to spend time learning to communicate with "regular" people as much as possible. However, the Oralist approach by itself (even the modern one) is fundamentally flawed. I love the new technology and the opportunities that it opens up (and will in the future), but you have to focus on the whole person. Implants, hearing aides, telephone transcription, and lip reading are just band aides. Hearing loss can not currently be repaired. The community focus and giving people more tools for communication is the key. Be it ASL, the Internet, or hearing aides. I think the hybrid approach is going in the right direction, but this debate has been going on so long, there are a huge number of misconceptions within and especially outside of the Deaf community that will take a lot of time to over come.

Things Deaf people are tired of hearing (besides puns):

Misconceptions? Yes, there are several things that I think most Deaf and HH people specifically are tired of hearing from the general public thanks to media coverage of scientific breakthroughs and specifically this long ongoing debate. Most groups have these. Here are my top few.

Why don't you get one of those (coke clear) implants and get your hearing back?

A: You can't get your hearing back, it is currently an unfixable kind of permanent thing. Those implants can help restore sound perception for profoundly deaf individuals, but they won't restore hearing to the level of someone with normal hearing. It might increase the ability for word comprehension though, maybe not, it depends on the person. Also, they are expensive (Two of them, one in each ear, will cost you about the same as a new Corvette or a three bedroom house in Oklahoma) and it's all out of pocket as they are not covered by any insurance. Children can often get a grant though.

I heard about (insert famous person) who was deaf and they could read lips so well no one knew they were deaf at all.

A: Reading lips is not a magical ability. Anyone can learn to do it, but it has a lot of limitations. Although it is a fun ability to use, it only gives partial word comprehension in even the best conditions. You can fake hearing ability by reading lips for a while, but there are give away mannerisms that are obvious to any observer. Lip reading also doesn't work well across cultural boundaries and languages, at a distance, on the phone, and obviously any time someone has their back turned or mouth covered.

I though deaf meant you couldn't hear at all. How can (some specific person they have heard of) recognize speech or have the ability to talk?

First of all, people who are Deaf are not usually mute (unable to talk) as well. Level of deafness varies, but most deaf people retain some ability to hear limited sounds. Most hearing problems are only a partial loss of hearing, but it can effect the ability to comprehend (understand, not hear) words being spoken.

Deaf people are not stupid. This is important. This seams to be misunderstood for some reason. Deaf does not equal low IQ. We can learn to communicate and understand speech and language in many ways. A lot of deaf people love to talk as well. In fact, among the deaf and HH, the love of reading, ability to concentrate, knowledge of multiple languages, computer literacy, and ability to observe means that, as a group, they are probably smarter then the general population.


So, those are the big issues in the deaf community. It isn't typically obvious in the media, but as you see things, talk to people, and read news articles and pamphlets, maybe this will help you see some of the underlying agendas of the people involved. It really helped open up the world of Deaf issues and education for me (as well as my own childhood) when I started making a study of this history and debate. I hope it will help you as well.


A more complete list of Schools for the Deaf here in the US.

Fascinating and much more detailed read about some of the issues and history I touched on here.

More on the Cochlear Debate.

A typical pamplet on the subject handed out in the late 90's. You'll notice the name Bell comes up a lot on the references section.

More from Wiki:

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