ON HAND: The failure of deaf education

This originally appeared in The Tactile Mind Weekly in Trudy’s ON HAND column.

I just moved into a new house, so my partner, Randy, and I have been constantly unpacking, organizing, and going through stuff from decades ago. A couple of weeks ago, we opened a box that had some things from Randy’s days at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf.

Among the things was a stack of letters and reports about certain pranks Randy and his friends had pulled in school. I laughed as I pored over them, appreciating the fun times the kids had.

But as I read on, I noticed something interesting: all the reports from the hearing resident advisors or teachers were negative and discouraging. Those from deaf resident advisors or teachers were full of high praise for Randy. “Excellent communicator; great leader; focused; excellent athlete; has strong sense of principles,” they wrote. Mind you, they didn’t excuse Randy from the pranks, but they clearly knew the difference between a troublemaker and a fun-loving student.

So I asked Randy about the negative comments. His nonchalant response was the same for each person: “Oh, he couldn’t sign very well. Hearing.”

With this response, I was reminded of a story I did once about a deaf football coach who also worked as a dorm resident advisor at a deaf school. A student came to school one day with a bruise, which had been caused by an incident outside of school. A hearing faculty member asked the student what happened, but misunderstood what the student said. The faculty member then reported to school officials that the coach had inflicted the bruise.

The coach was suspended and banned from campus until the facts were finally cleared up. Needless to say, the coach was humiliated, especially since he was from a prominent deaf family who had all attended the school. All because the hearing faculty member couldn’t understand ASL.

And we wonder why deaf education has failed for so many years.

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