An Intellectual Look at American Sign Language. (In Review).
The title of Tom Bertling's compilation of essays from educators and commentators in the field of deaf education is somewhat a misnomer. From the title, one might expect to find a detailed linguistic analysis of American Sign Language (ASL) with cultural and historic context including a comparison to both spoken languages and other visual-gestural languages. In fact, this small volume makes only passing mention of these issues. Rather, its intention is to justify the following thesis: Profoundly, prelinqually deaf children, cannot learn English through ASL as the teaching method. Please note that ASL in this article refers to pure ASL, the native language of the Deaf, as opposed to a variety of other forms of sign language with English-based features.
For those already well versed in the complex issues that arise in deaf education, these essays represent one strong voice in a very important debate. Educators of the deaf, deaf consumers, interpreters, and rehabilitation and mental health counselors for the deaf will find it useful to read this book. It provides a look at Deaf * culture and deaf education from the perspective of those who believe that using ASL as a teaching tool for English and for most academic subjects is a tragic mistake. The authors concern themselves with the extremely low reading level of students graduating from schools for the deaf and Gallaudet University (3rd to 4th grade level); the politics behind protests against cochlear implants by leaders in the Deaf community; the misinformation these authors believe naive hearing parents of deaf children receive from proponents of Deaf culture regarding appropriate choices to be made for their child; what they consider to be the inadequacy of ASL as the venue for teaching English or learning to function sufficiently in the all-important hearing world; and their view that Deaf culture is not a viable, enduring culture capable of surviving the demise of the residential schools as they now exist. Although the essays tend to cover different topics and the authors cover the span of hearing status (Bertling himself is a fluent ASL user, hard of hearing, and from a family with hereditary deafness going back five generations), they all basically take a stance against the reliance of deaf individuals on what they call "low ASL" for education. In general, they reject the philosophy put forth by some members of the Deaf community that maintenance of Deaf culture and language (ASL) is of paramount importance for the well being of deaf children.
On the other hand, for those who are not very exposed to the issues of deafness, this material will be somewhat puzzling. Such a reader might think he or she was hearing one side of a confusing conversation and perhaps not even understand why the issue is so big. Is this just about bilingual education, this person might ask? Are we talking about something that mirrors the issue raised by Ebonics? In fact, for such a person this book would probably be almost incomprehensible. Many professionals in the field of rehabilitation may not even know that only a small percentage, perhaps 5%, of the 30 million Americans with hearing impairments are individuals who are profoundly deaf, use American Sign Language, and consider themselves members of Deaf culture. These professionals may not comprehend why this issue of how to teach English to deaf children is so controversial, let alone important.
This lack of information points to the biggest deficiency in Mr. Bertling's edited collection: There is insufficient data for an uninformed person to make use of the arguments presented. Such a person might be a hearing parent facing and dealing with the guilt, grief, and challenge of having a deaf child after expecting a "perfect" heating child (90% of deaf children are born to heating parents). The intensity of the debate surrounding this issue reflects larger, highly complex conflicts in deaf education. Unlike bilingual education or Ebonics, the reality is that how deaf children learn English cannot be separated from the entire issue of learning language, developing effective and meaningful communication within the family and the community, and developing adequately intellectually and psychologically to accomplish the arduous task of becoming a competent, functioning adult. Within this context are complicated discussions about how a child who will not naturally learn the language of his/her parents be able to acquire an adequate fund of information, an ability to express him/herself orally (verbally) and in writing, and form essential attachments to parents, siblings, and others. Thus the debate heats up with what, how, at what age a deaf child learns language. Should the child learn to speak and read lips, extremely difficult tasks requiring consistent and considerable resources from parents, or should the child learn sign language, and if so, which kind and in what environment? What about the differing levels of deafness, from mild hearing losses to profound deafness, congenital losses to those deafened after they had already acquired language? Should the child go to a deaf school where communication will be easy although the educational outcomes might be so poor that such a child will never learn to read and write English well and may be doomed to a life on SSI, not to mention separation from his or her family? Or, should the deaf child be sent to a mainstream class where he/she might suffer emotionally from the extreme social isolation, feelings of being an outsider, and struggling to communicate on basic levels?
Bertling neglects to put the issue of deaf education in an adequate historical context, thus bypassing the psychological significance of the current focus on Deaf culture, and the emotional consequences of years of few resources, exclusion, oppression, and no avenue for self-determination for Deaf individuals. He does not provide a backdrop for the reader to understand why oral approaches, including Cued Speech, lip-reading, and use of hearing aids, can be ineffective with some individuals, and, for Deaf adults, often painfully evocative of difficult childhood struggles learning to speak when one cannot hear in a world run by heating people.
Several authors in Bertling's book criticize the work of Harlan Lane, author of When The Mind Hears and Mask of Benevolence. However, a person wishing to get a balanced perspective of this confusing and political issue of deaf education would be well-served reading some of Lane's work to get an idea of the history and a counterpoint to the views presented in An Intellectual Look at American Sign-Language. The viewpoints expressed by the authors are important ones to be heard in this continuing debate provided the reader has the opportunity to hear the other side of the conversation.
* The author of this review has elected to capitalize the "D" in deaf when referring to Deaf culture or to those who consider themselves members of Deaf culture.
Karen Rachels, CRC, MFT Marriage and Family Therapist in Oakland and San Francisco, CA Disabled Students Counselor, City College of San Francisco
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|Publication:||The Journal of Rehabilitation|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2001|
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