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Read Our Story On Deaf Education In LA Public Schools As It Aired On The Radio

A middle schooler wearing a headscarf, white facemask and a navy blue quarter-zip sweatshirt stands in a doorway facing one adult teacher, who's holding a blue box about the size of a book. Another adult facing away from the camera — a sign language interpreter — is making gestures with his hands as he communicates to the student in American Sign Language.
A 13-year-old student receives an internet hotspot device as an American Sign Language interpreter helps facilitate communication between the student and her teacher. The student is hard-of-hearing and requires an ASL interpreter in most of her classes.
(John Moore/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America)
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A version of our recent story about a policy change in the L.A. Unified School District's Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing program also aired on KPCC radio. Below is a transcript of that story:

HOST INTRODUCTION: For more than a century, many educators have urged children who are deaf and hard-of-hearing to integrate into the hearing world. But some scholars say the emphasis on using hearing aids and cochlear implants denies many deaf kids a chance to learn sign language. Recently, the L.A. Unified School District made a change that could encourage more kids to become bilingual — in both English and American Sign Language. KPCC’s Kyle Stokes reports the change adds a new chapter to an old debate in the Deaf community.

REPORTER: At one-and-a-half years old, David Sanchez received his first cochlear implant — and in hearing classrooms, his teachers wanted him to use that implant. Here he is speaking through an interpreter:

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SANCHEZ: “I remember in preschool, if I signed, my teacher would hit me on the wrist.”

REPORTER: He could hear sound through the implant, but couldn’t process it fast enough to keep up with his teachers. When he got older, Sanchez joined a program that embraced his use of American Sign Language, or ASL. As Sanchez addressed a recent meeting of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, he switched from signing his testimony to speaking it aloud:

SANCHEZ: “Most people think that Deaf people who use ASL don’t speak. This is not true. Learning ASL has helped my English skills and speech skills.”

REPORTER: Advocates say schools should embrace this approach. It’s called ASL-English bilingual education — and at the meeting where Sanchez spoke, the L.A. school board voted to expand its use. All deaf babies in the district can receive services through the public schools from birth. And up to age 3, they’ll now be placed into a bilingual program by default. The change chips away at what some advocates say is a deep-seated bias against teaching ASL in schools.

HALL: “What L.A. Unified School District is doing is groundbreaking. I think it’s historical.”

REPORTER: Wyatte Hall is an assistant professor at University of Rochester Medical Center. Through an interpreter, Hall says that for too long, schools have put too much faith in hearing aids or implants.

HALL: “Even the best cochlear implant technology today isn’t a cure, it doesn’t make deaf people hearing. There’s always a limitation of some kind.”

REPORTER: The very earliest a baby can receive a cochlear implant is at 9 months old — meaning they’ve missed a big chunk of the window in which the growing brain develops language. So scholars like Hall say schools should expose deaf children to both ASL and spoken English, rather than gamble that children will pick up on spoken language alone.

HALL: “There are these stars who do very well, and you can hardly tell that they’re deaf at all — they have an implant, they speak very well — but most do not.”

REPORTER: At the center of the debate is a deeply personal choice. Many in the Deaf community consider ASL their natural language — and suppressing that language suppresses Deaf culture. Most deaf children are also born outside that culture — to hearing parents, some of whom fear that, because they can’t sign, they’ll be unable to communicate with their own kids, depriving them of all early language exposure.

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AQUINO: “I thought my baby was going to be able to communicate only with sign language.”

REPORTER: Marcela Aquino has two deaf daughters.

AQUINO: “My family — they didn’t even speak English, so I knew it was going to be hard.”

REPORTER: Aquino’s daughters both received cochlear implants, and she also fought to get them both into a school that specializes in spoken language. Now, her younger daughter, Michelle Ugalde, is comfortable relying on her implants in school.

MICHELLE UVALDE: “Since people consider my voice clear and understandable, almost like a hearing person, when I don’t tell anyone that I’m deaf, I can understand things from a hearing person’s perspective.”

REPORTER: Neither Michelle nor her sister Chelsea learned sign language growing up — though they’re learning a little now. Chelsea feels like they straddle two different worlds.

CHELSEA UVALDE: “I know I’m deaf. No one can prove anything else.”

REPORTER: To supporters of spoken language, students like Chelsea and Michelle are proof of how good hearing technology has gotten — and they worry that by adopting a bilingual approach, schools are downplaying the possibilities that those technologies have unlocked. Covering education, I’m Kyle Stokes.

Another version of this story also appeared on LAist.com.

Corrected June 1, 2022 at 2:10 PM PDT
This post was updated to correct a misspelling of Marcela Aquino's name. LAist regrets the error.