Let Deaf children’s families make choices about education

For literally hundreds of years, there’s been a fundamental debate at the roots of Deaf education. Should Deaf children learn “oralism,” attempting to communicate and integrate as best they can with the hearing world by learning to speak? Or should they instead be taught through “manualism,” giving them access to sign language and easier forms of communication at the expense of a connection with their hearing peers?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1990, takes both sides on this issue. The act requires states to provide “a continuum of alternate placements” for disabled children, while also stating that disabled children should be educated “to the maximum extent appropriate … with children who are nondisabled.”

So, then, what is the “appropriate” educational setting for a Deaf child? Doctors and specialists all seem to agree that language development is crucial, particularly at early ages. Attempting to indoctrinate Deaf children into the English language can take precious years away from a child who only has limited time to learn. Support specialist Elizabeth Engelman, who initially raised her Deaf son to learn oralism, writes in The New York Times that “he had a severe language delay … I feared his window for language was closing.” Clearly, if Deaf children are to have successful lives, they must have successful communication skills; a void that can largely be filled by sign language and manualism.

That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with manualist schools for the Deaf. California spends $70 million per year on its two Deaf schools, Fremont and Riverside, and yet consistently struggles to educate their students. In 2010, just 8% at these schools were fluent in reading and writing skills, according to the California Department of Education. Given these discouraging statistics, it would seem as though the government should stay out of the picture.

And that’s exactly right. Strict federal guidelines often lead to schools treating each disabled student the same way. What we need is a system like Florida’s hands-off approach, which gives parents of Deaf children over $20 million in school-choice money for private or alternative education. These schools, free from restrictive federal guidelines, are able to mold their curriculum to best serve each individual student– and they’ve increased Deaf literacy from 21 percent to 45 percent from 2000 to 2010.

While IDEA and other such legislation have made tremendous strides for disabled rights, their strict guidelines often allow students with differing needs slip through the cracks. We must not only ensure that Deaf children are each given the resources they need to succeed, but that all children are allowed to succeed on their own terms, rather than the federal government’s.