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Reading, Writing and Rehabilitation.

A counselor--let's call him Henry--sends his young deaf customer, John, for a job interview. Henry first calls the firm to make sure it has an opening and will hire a deaf worker. Henry is assured on both counts, so he is surprised when John soon returns, crestfallen. He has been abruptly rejected. Henry phones the personnel officer and is told, "We don't hire wise guys!" Puzzled, Henry asks John for more detail about what happened. John, shy about his speaking ability, handed the interviewer a note on which he innocently wrote, "I want your job."

John's story is apocryphal, though it has survived several repetitions among rehabilitation counselors. A true incident, however, happened to me several years ago. I was invited to lunch at a meat-processing plant, but the personnel officer soon made it clear that my visit was not entirely social: He wanted assistance with a deaf employee. Max was a first-rate meat cutter who knew his job so well that his limited ability to communicate did not impede his work ... not until the company switched its health insurer. Max created such an uproar in the payroll department that he faced discharge. When I met him, Max's vigorous signing explained the source of his rage: He believed that the change meant he and his family no longer had coverage. It took me about half an hour to convince him that he still had coverage and that, indeed, the new plan provided superior benefits. Once that was established, Max went happily back to work and the company was relieved.

The two anecdotes barely illustrate the role of literacy in rehabilitation. Literacy is more than a fancy term tossed about by academics; it is a significant factor affecting the rehabilitation of all clients, especially those with weak reading and writing skills. Colloquial expressions ("I want your job") and limited ability to decipher print (in Max's case) can severely hamper gaining and retaining employment.

The Achievement of Literacy

The education of deaf students in non-specialized classes (a practice labeled "mainstreaming" or "integration") aims to increase their academic achievement. Has it succeeded? The Annual Survey of Hearing Impaired Children and Youth (ASHICY) conducts national testing of deaf students each year. in 1987, reading comprehension scores of 17-year-old deaf and hard-of-hearing students averaged a grade-level of 4.0. Ten years later, the average grade level for this age group fell to 3.9 (Holt et al., 1997).

The decline of 0.1 grade between 1987 and 1997 has only statistical interest. Of practical significance is the lack of improvement in reading ability over the 10-year period, in spite of the many efforts and much money which were directed during this time towards increasing literacy. For the general population, such poor reading levels signify illiteracy. To the rehabilitation counselor working with deaf consumers, this low-average reading level cautions against any assumptions about deaf people's literacy.

Deafness and Literacy

Do ASHICY's findings mean hearing loss limits literacy? Or do these results expose inadequate curriculums, lack of teacher competencies, failures to apply new technology, or lack of motivation by educators and/or the deaf students? Probably some combination of these factors can account for the lack of improvement in reading, but the blame cannot rest with hearing loss.

Born-deaf people's first language is a visual, not a spoken, language (Schein & Stewart, 1995). In this country, American Sign Language (ASL) is the basic language on which deaf students must build. The discovery that ASL is a true language and the research that shows how quickly deaf children acquire it demonstrate that a language can be acquired without hearing it (Schein & Stewart, 1995). Other research shows language learning is inherited; it is, as the computer experts say, hard-wired into the organism (Chomsky, 1968; Ratner & Harriss, 1994). So learning a language is not the problem: Learning English is the problem.


Research on language learning finds that bilingualism need not have a negative effect on acquiring a second language. The research on ASL as a first language finds no evidence "that the use of sign language in education interfered with the ability to develop a speech recoding strategy, or that knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL) negatively influenced the acquisition of English skills" (Lichtenstein 1998, p. 80). Data from Denmark, Sweden, Japan, Finland, and Italy also show that deafness does not prevent language learning, neither of the native sign language nor, in printed form, the spoken language (Furlonger & Massa, 1998; Schein & Stewart, 1995; Weisel, 1998).

Since the evidence says English literacy depends upon how American deaf children are taught, not upon their native abilities, rehabilitation professionals must focus their attention on instructional techniques. To become literate in any language, one must first know the language; then, learning to read and write that language amounts to decoding symbols representing it. Some confusion occurs between language learning and literacy. Fluency in a language differs from being able to read or write it.

Since language covers a large territory, two points apply:

* Literacy is not an all-or-nothing condition; a person may have more or less linguistic proficiency.

* There are various types of literacy, such as "computer literacy" and "scientific literacy."

Literacy can be achieved without exceptional talent. Given the opportunity, most people can learn to read and write. Persons with low IQ's can become literate, although it may take them longer to do so. Chronological age is not an insurmountable barrier: Very young children can, and often do, learn to read before they enter school; and adults can become literate long after they have left school (Apel & Swank, 1999; Fisher, 1998).


Willingness to work at learning to read and write is required. When the rehabilitation counselor makes his deaf client understand how crucial literacy may be to obtaining a job, the client will likely undertake remedial instruction with more enthusiasm than before. Not all clients, of course, will respond to that incentive, so the counselor's task remains to motivate the client to study English.


One researcher argues "that a paradigmatic shift must be undertaken that uses visually based strategies for reading analogous or equivalent to those for hearing individuals" (Grushkin, 1998, p. 179). He insists that this strategy will result in more deaf students becoming successful readers.

A program specifically designed along these lines is Structured Methods In Language Education (SMILE). The author, Enid G. Wolf-Schein (1999), has adapted the Association Method first introduced half a century ago at the Central Institute for the Deaf, St. Louis, Missiouri. In carefully designed, minimal steps, the teacher takes the deaf student through phonics-based instruction from reading to writing. Though the use of a phonics-based approach to teach deaf students is counter intuitive, SMILE has worked so well for teaching English that it now has been translated into Spanish. Its success is consistent with the view that writing is visible speech, which makes the method logical as well as in tune with empirical evidence (DeFrancis, 1989).

The Laurent Clerc Center at Gallaudet University, has an ambitious project to encourage parents to read to their deaf children. As simple as the prescription sounds, the study finds that parents need assistance to implement it. (For an advanced progress report, contact Dr. Linda Delk, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Avenue, N.,E., Washington, DC 20002, or via e-mail: (See also Paul, 1998, and Lederberg & Everhart, 1998, for other approaches to developing literacy.)

Reading Signs

Wide-ranging research has shown that the manner in which a language is written makes a difference in how easily it is learned (DeFrancis, 1989). Chinese children learn to read their language 10 times faster in Pinyin--an alphabetized version of the Chinese language--than when it is written in the traditional graphemes. Similarly, Turkish is mastered more readily in the Latin alphabet than in Arabic script (DeFrancis, 1989). The Chinese and Turkish experiences should be remembered by anyone who suggests that deaf students would learn English more readily if it were presented in pictographs.

Limiting Bilingualism

Two caveats before adopting bilingualism need to be mentioned. The first is that bilingualism impedes language development when one of the two languages is demeaned. For example, Latino children in Los Angeles schools have more difficulty learning English when their teachers deride their native Spanish (Schein & Stewart, 1995). The second caution is that educators must not take prelingually deaf children's knowledge of ASL for granted because they use it every day. The same educators do not take normally hearing students' knowledge of English for granted, even though they use it daily. Since second language literacy will depend upon the strength with which the first language has been learned, it seems to me that studying ASL should be included in teaching English to deaf students. The greater the first language competence, the better second language learning.

Appraising Literacy

A counselor of deaf clients needs realistic appraisals of their literacy. Using standardized measures, such as the Stanford Achievement Tests, has been criticized because they "penalize" deaf persons. That is true, if they are used to predict their ability to learn or to determine how well they think; but standardized measures indicate where they stand relative to the general population. That, after all, is the measure employers will use. An employer wants to know if the deaf worker will understand printed directions or will make costly errors in operating equipment when instructed verbally; the counselor wants to know if his deaf client will need special assistance to pass a vocational course. These are fair questions, and using inappropriate measures to answer them will only penalize the deaf client.

Use of Interpreters

Few rehabilitation counselors can communicate with a deaf client in sign language. Accordingly, they are required to engage interpreters to aid them in communicating with the client. Finding interpreters and determining their qualifications are not easy tasks. First of all, interpreters tend to be in short supply. That means that too many unqualified people represent themselves as interpreters. One way to avoid them is to insist that the interpreters you use are certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf or by their state government (Stewart, Schein & Cartwright, 1998).

Once an interpreter is engaged, the counselor must become familiar with how to use the interpreter. All remarks should be addressed to the client. To facilitate that arrangement, the interpreter should be behind the counselor. In that way, the deaf person can see both, and the counselor will be looking at the deaf client when speaking. There is much more to using sign language interpreters, such as avoiding ambiguous language and overly rapid speech. Consulting with the interpreter before the client arrives permits arrangements for lighting, placement and discussion of particular problems that might arise. Once the deaf client is present, the certified interpreter will not respond to questions and will sign anything spoken by the counselor. That is why prior consultation is so valuable to a smoothly interpreted interview.

Sending an interpreter with clients for job interviews and providing an interpreter when clients or employers request one are well-justified procedures. Such instances require interpreters who have the requisite education and experience to handle employment situations. The rehabilitation counselor should also contact employers to inform them about the interpreter's role. Some personnel interviewers regard the presence of the interpreter as indicating a substandard employee. That is why some deaf clients occasionally refuse to permit an interpreter to accompany them on an interview. The counselor can clarify the interpreter's functions and assure the employer that interpreters will not be necessary to the deaf employee's routine duties.

However, there are situations where a deaf employee may need an interpreter to perform routine duties. For instance, a deaf engineer serving as part of a working group may find an interpreter helpful during the group's meetings. In such circumstances, the deaf person who is a skilled lipreader will still be unable to function well, because following the conversation as it moves rapidly from speaker to speaker will sometimes be difficult or impossible. Advising the employer of such added expenses in advance will enable all parties to make an intelligent employment decision. For a fuller discussion of interpreters in rehabilitation, see Stewart, et al. (1998).

Summary Abstract

As rehabilitation enters the Information Age, the criticality of literacy looms large. Of all clients, those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing face the severest obstacles to entering and flourishing in a labor market that so heavily depends upon rapid, accurate communication. To date, the educational system does not appear to have prepared the average deaf student to attain English literacy. Therefore, rehabilitation must undertake the unfinished task of preparing its deaf clients for the new millennium. The evidence presented here suggests that this task can be successful and that deaf clients can achieve literacy, but that to do so will demand strong efforts to motivate them and improved methods to teach them.


Apel, K., & Swank, L.K. (1999). Second chances: Improving coding skills in the older student. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 30, 231-242.

Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

De Francis, J. (1989). Visible speech. The diverse oneness of writing systems. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Fisher, S.D. (1998). Critical periods for language acquisition. In Issues Unresolved: New Perspectives on Language and Deaf Education. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Furlonger, B., & Massa, D. (1998). Reading, bilingualism, and deafness. Communicate [National Foundation for the Deaf, New Zealand], 8(2), 5-9.

Grushkin, D.A. (1998). Why shouldn't Sam read? Toward a new paradigm for literacy and the deaf. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 3, 179-204.

Holt, J., Traxler, T., & Allen, T. (1997). A User's guide to the ninth edition of the Stanford Achievement Test for educators of deaf and hard of hearing students. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Research Institute, Gallaudet University.

Lederberg, A.R., & Everhart, V.S. (1998). Communication between deaf children and their hearing mothers: The role of language, gesture, and vocalizations. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 41,887-899.

Lichtenstein, E.H. (1998). The relationship between reading processes and English skills of deaf college students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 3, 80-1 34.

In P.V. Paul (Ed.). (1998). Special issue on literacy. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 3, 177-263.

Ratner, V.L., & Harris, L.R. (1994) Understanding language disorders. Eau Claire, WI: Thinking Publications.

Schein, J.D., & Stewart, D.A. (1995) Language in Motion. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Stewart, D.A., Schein, J.D., & Cartwright, B. (1998). Sign language interpreting: Exploring its art and science. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

In A. Weisel (Ed.). (1998). Insights into deaf education: Current theory and practice. Tel Aviv, Israel: Academic Press of Tel Aviv University.

Wolf-Schein, E.G. (1999). Structured methods in language education. Washington, DC: A.G. Bell Association.

Dr. Schein is Emeritus Professor of Sensory Rehabilitation, New York University, and Adjunct Professor of Psychology, University of Alberta.
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Author:Schein, Jerome D.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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