A 'Historic' LAUSD Vote On Deaf Education Stirs An Old Debate: Should Kids Learn Both Speech & Sign Language?
The student is now in 10th grade, but her memories from kindergarten are still vivid. Back then, when this student would try to communicate using sign language, her teacher would clasp her hands together.
“No hands,” the teacher would tell this student. “Just pay attention.”
A version of this story also aired on the radio. Read that version here.
The now-10th grader is Deaf. Back then, this student attended a mostly hearing kindergarten. (LAist is withholding the student’s name to protect her privacy because she’s a minor.)
The student wore hearing aids as a young child. With the devices switched on, she can access sound. But the devices gave her headaches — and she couldn’t process spoken language fast enough to keep up with the teacher who discouraged her use of the method she preferred: American Sign Language, or ASL.
You might notice in this story that the “D” in “Deaf” is occasionally capitalized. That’s intentional; we’re following guidance from both the Associated Press and the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ). They both recommend:
- Using “deaf” — with a lower-case “d” — to refer to the audiological diagnosis or condition.
- Using “Deaf” — with an upper-case “D” — to refer to the culture and community of Deaf people.
In some instances, we refer to people who identify as “Deaf” with a capital D. The NCDJ also notes that not all people who are deaf identify as part of the Deaf community, and thus would prefer the lower-case “d.” For more, please check out LAist’s Style Guide, Dialogue.
“It was like silence all the time,” she remembered. “I would finish my work, and then at home it was silence. I had no communication with my parents, so I was alone.”
The silence broke for this student when she transferred to the Marlton School for the Deaf, a public school in the Los Angeles Unified system where teachers encourage the school’s 150 students — about 100 of whom are deaf — to use sign language. Teachers here want students to become bilingual: as proficient as possible in spoken English, as well as ASL.
Earlier this month, L.A. Unified school board members voted to expand the district's use of this bilingual approach.
From birth, deaf babies born in LAUSD have long been eligible to receive services through the school district. Now, as part of the sweeping changes the LAUSD board recently enacted to Deaf education programs, the school district will now place every child identified as deaf or hard-of-hearing before the age of 3 — by default — into a bilingual program.
Why This Vote Matters
With these changes, LAUSD has added a new chapter to an old debate in the Deaf community.
Since at least 1880, when a conference of educators in Milan declared “the incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring [deaf people] to society,” many teachers have urged students from the Deaf community to acquire spoken language. Today, the vast majority of LAUSD’s 2,100 deaf and hard-of-hearing students learn in mainstream classrooms and are encouraged to learn to rely on technology such as hearing aids or cochlear implants.
Supporters of the bilingual approach say stories like those told by the Marlton 10th grader are common — and that the LAUSD board’s vote chips away at a deep-seated bias in public education against teaching ASL.
“What L.A. Unified School District is doing is groundbreaking. I think it’s historical,” said Wyatte Hall, an assistant professor at University of Rochester Medical Center, who’s also Deaf. “I was expecting it to be voted down, because that’s what happens historically.”
At the center of this debate is a set of personal, complex choices.
Many in the Deaf community consider ASL to be their natural language. To them, suppressing that language is tantamount to suppressing Deaf culture. They say a bilingual approach helps affirm that culture in school.
Yet the majority of children who are deaf are also born outside that culture — to hearing parents, many of whom fear that they’ll be unable to communicate with their own kids. Many of these parents who don’t speak ASL prefer intensive training in “listening and spoken language” for fear that they’ll deprive their children of exposure to any language at all during their early years of life.
“I thought my baby was only going to be able to communicate with sign language,” said Marcela Aquino, whose two daughters were born deaf. “My family — they didn’t even speak English, so I knew it was going to be hard.”
“We knew: we can speak,” said Jeena Quansah, another parent with typical hearing whose son is deaf. “We know how to speak English. We can speak to him constantly, constantly, constantly … We wanted to hit the ground running with using spoken language.”
Unless they take this child out of this family, they’re not going to be exposed to normal [American Sign Language]. They’re going to see a fluent ASL signer maybe once a week for an hour, and then it’ll be whatever the parents can put together.
This isn’t only a debate about philosophies of Deaf education.
Many advocates for the listening and spoken language approach say the LAUSD board has set the stage for more conflict. They contend that LAUSD board members’ resolution — which decrees “all Deaf babies will” start out in a bilingual ASL-English program — undercuts parents’ rights under federal special education law to negotiate for the learning environment they want for their child.
In response to the criticism, the resolution’s authors — school board members Jackie Goldberg and Scott Schmerelson — amended the legislation to emphasize that parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing kids maintain their rights to choose. However, Goldberg defended setting a bilingual program as LAUSD’s default offering, saying that without strong, clear directives in their resolution, there would be no guarantee that all parents would be informed of a bilingual option.
Critics say there should be no default offering at all.
“Either default — whether it’s Your baby’s deaf, let’s listen and speak, or Your baby’s deaf, let’s sign — both of those defaults are a violation of the parent’s right to choose,” said Melinda Davis-Gillinger, a consultant who helps families navigate the special education process.
The Case For Bilingualism
Every year, California hospitals screen nearly all newborn infants for hearing loss. In 2013, more than 479,000 screenings identified 945 infants with hearing loss — a typical rate (0.2%) for a single year. Most of these children will receive either hearing aids or cochlear implants. Medi-Cal covers the cost for cochlear implant surgeries and devices.
Experts say cochlear implant technology has vastly improved in recent decades — but the technology has limits.
“Even the best cochlear implant technology today isn’t a cure; it doesn’t make deaf people hearing,” said Hall, a clinical psychologist who studies language development. “There’s always a limitation of some kind.”
Many cochlear implants require adjustments or corrective surgery. Even when the implant works, many children require extensive speech and audiological therapy to learn how to process sound.
All the while, the prime window of time in which the developing brain learns to pick up on language is closing rapidly. For many children, this window shuts by the age of 3 or 4 — and the very earliest a baby can receive a cochlear implant under U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules is at nine months.
“One of the big problems is that we cannot predict … who’s going to be a successful [cochlear implant] user,” said David Corina, a professor of linguistics and psychology at UC Davis. It’s normal for a child, for example, to receive an implant, but then stop using it by the time they’re ready for preschool.
“We see this all the time — and it goes both ways,” Corina added, “where you see kids who are good signers, but they start using their implant, stop using their sign language and develop a preference for spoken language.”
We have two languages: American Sign Language and English. We’re learning English to be able to relate to the world out there. So through this experience, we’re being prepared for the external world.
Therein lies the case for the bilingual approach to Deaf education: Instead of doubling-down on verbal language, supporters say early educators should expose children to both ASL and spoken language.
Essentially, supporters say the bilingual approach at least avoids a worst-case scenario — that children receive very little exposure to any language at all — and opens up greater possibility that children will acquire more than one language.
“The possibility of kids picking up language from sound alone is highly variable,” said Hall, a clinical psychologist who studies language deprivation. “We still do not fully know why many children do not do well, and it’s very risky to gamble on that alone when a visual language can fully protect healthy cognitive development.”
“There are these stars who do very well,” Hall also said, “and you can hardly tell that they’re deaf at all. They have an implant, they speak very well — but most do not.”
The Case For Spoken Language
Even 19 years later, Marcela Aquino still chokes up at the memory of finding out her oldest child, Chelsea Ugalde, was deaf.
“I felt lost,” Aquino remembered. “I don’t know what to do, where to go.”
Aquino learned quickly. Her second child, Michelle, was born deaf, too. Both Chelsea and Michelle received cochlear implants. Aquino also hired a special education lawyer to help her secure spots in schools that specialize in intensive spoken language instruction.
“I knew,” Aquino said, “that if she can be able to hear and talk, even if she’s deaf, she will have a better life, better opportunities.”
Both Michelle and Chelsea remember this early training.
“We had to learn to speak vowels, vocabulary — that’s what I can remember,” said Chelsea.
“They would have us repeat the sounds,” Michelle remembered, “like, ‘Ahh,’ ‘Mmm,’ ‘Ppp.' ”
Now in 9th grade and enrolled in an LAUSD charter school, Michelle is comfortable relying on her implants in school. Her teachers use a microphone system to help her hear clearly; it’s part of her special education plan.
“Since people consider my voice clear and understandable — almost like a hearing person — when I don’t tell anyone that I’m deaf,” Michelle said. “I can understand things from a hearing person’s perspective.”
Neither Michelle nor Chelsea learned sign language growing up, though they’re both learning a little now. Chelsea feels like they straddle two different worlds.
“I know I’m deaf,” Chelsea said. “No one can prove anything else.”
To supporters of spoken language, students such as Chelsea and Michelle are proof of how much hearing technology has advanced — and they worry that by adopting a bilingual approach, LAUSD is downplaying the possibilities that those technologies have unlocked.
“To impose this across the board on the basis of, really, no evidence, when we have evidence that would suggest it’s not a promising road to go down, seems very ill thought out for school systems to do,” said Ann Geers, a consultant in Deaf education and former professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Geers said that advocates for the bilingual approach are way too optimistic about hearing families’ ability to expose their children to a meaningful amount of ASL. Up to the age of 3, many deaf children aren’t learning in classroom settings. Instead, parents often receive visits from teachers who assist in both sign language and spoken language training about once a week, Geers said.
The children who tend to do the best, tend to be the ones who come from a family from a certain socioeconomic background: parents who are able to navigate both the healthcare and the education system.
“Unless they take this child out of this family, they’re not going to be exposed to normal ASL,” Geers said. “They’re going to see a fluent ASL signer maybe once a week for an hour, and then it’ll be whatever the parents can put together.”
In a 2017 study, published in the journal Pediatrics, Geers and her co-authors examined how children with cochlear implants performed on tests of their spoken-language abilities. They found that kids who were exposed to no sign language at all — that is, kids whose caregivers doubled-down on the spoken language approach — had more intelligible speech than children who received some sign language instruction.
Geers’ study was hotly debated at the time of its publication. Among the criticisms was that the study didn’t distinguish between children who were exposed to true sign languages — such as ASL, a language with word order and grammar that differs from English — and children who were exposed to “artificial” sign languages — like “total communication,” which blends English word order, speech, ASL signs, fingerspelling, pointing and even pictures. Most scholars acknowledge total communication is a poor substitute for true languages.
That criticism may also underline Geers’ point: Can hearing parents who aren’t fluent in ASL truly offer enough exposure to rich sign language to help their child become bilingual?
“Realistically,” Geers said, “two working parents, coming home and trying to learn some sign and use it with their baby — this is not the same as growing up in a Deaf family.”
But Naomi Caselli, an assistant professor at the Wheelock College of Education at Boston University, points to other studies showing there isn’t that strong a relationship between parents’ ASL abilities and the child’s ability to become fluent. Broadly speaking, there’s lots of evidence that bilingualism — in whatever languages — brings beneficial outcomes for children.
Caselli says that, perhaps unintentionally, Geers study actually underlines the risks for children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing: even in the study’s best-performing group — the children with cochlear implants who received exclusively spoken language instruction — the vast majority of students scored below average for their hearing peers.
“That’s a big risk,” Caselli said, “they’re not going to be able to learn a spoken language.”
‘Parents Don’t Know’
Far beneath the high-level philosophical debates, advocates on both sides are concerned about the lived experience of parents navigating a complicated — and combative — special education process.
More than 80% of LAUSD students are from low-income families. Roughly half of students are either still learning English or speak other languages with their families at home.
“The children who tend to do the best, tend to be the ones who come from a family from a certain socioeconomic background,” said Mallorie Evans, an LAUSD audiologist and a top official in the United Teachers Los Angeles labor union. She described them as “parents who are able to navigate both the healthcare and the education system, those who have the ability to have a parent who has the ability to take their children to therapy, to immerse themselves in this world.”
If [parents] don’t know what their choices are because they’re being pushed to what the school district has, they won’t know how to make that choice.
Consider the obstacles Marcela Aquino had to overcome in caring for Chelsea and Michelle.
Aquino’s first language is Spanish, but she drilled her children exclusively in spoken English in their early years for fear that speaking Spanish would muddy the waters. Both Michelle and Chelsea required multiple surgeries to receive working cochlear implants. Aquino quit her job to care for them; only recently, as Chelsea prepares to graduate, has Aquino resumed working.
And initially, Aquino remembers scrambling to find advice about how to receive the district's Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing services — all during a critical developmental period.
“Parents don’t know. They don’t know where to go for information,” said María Sánchez, whose 6-year-old son was born deaf. She’s active in a support group for Spanish-speaking Latino parents called Our Voice.
Sánchez said LAUSD initially funneled her son, who also has Down’s syndrome, into a spoken language classroom. After a few months, she lobbied for a new placement at the Marlton School, hoping to find ASL instruction for her son.
Information about bilingual programs wasn’t exactly hidden — but also not easy to find, Sánchez said.
“Originally, they would just give us pamphlets,” Sánchez remembered, speaking through a translator. “They didn’t show us how to find these programs. There was no address.”
What comes next for the parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children will likely depend on how LAUSD educators implement the new resolution’s language requiring “parental consent” for placement in bilingual programs — which worries audiologist Sylvia Rotfleisch, who opposed the recent resolution.
Even if obtaining parental consent doesn’t turn into a checkbox-compliance exercise, Rotfleish said, “if [parents] don’t know what their choices are because they’re being pushed to what the school district has, they won’t know how to make that choice.”
Preparing For ‘The External World’
Students in LAUSD’s Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing program span the spectrum of hearing loss.
According to one veteran LAUSD teacher's estimate, 1,700 of the program’s 2,100 students learn in mostly hearing classrooms — including some students who are hard-of-hearing in just one ear or have relatively mild hearing loss. Compare this to around 200 students who currently learn primarily in ASL.
The numbers have fed some concern among opponents that the resolution represents overreach by advocates for a minority within the program.
But advocates from the Deaf community say that bilingualism is not an attempt to cloister students from the wider world; it’s an attempt to ensure more students are able to integrate into that world.
On a recent morning at the Marlton School, which is tucked into a neighborhood in Baldwin Hills, a teacher reiterated — in sign language, of course — that ASL was the default language during class time. Most of the students in the classroom wore hearing devices, but assistant principal Lauren Maucere explained that the students worked on their spoken language skills during “center time” pull-out sessions.
“Students are not marginalized because they are deaf,” said Maucere, “and they are not their own isolated group within a hearing campus. They don’t feel that way here. They feel like it’s a whole community here.”
“The hearing and the deaf people — we hang out together,” explained 8th grader Fredi Ovalle.
“We have two languages: American Sign Language and English,” added Jezel Duran, who’s in 12th grade. “We’re learning English to be able to relate to the world out there. So through this experience, we’re being prepared for the external world.”
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