Some parents angered by Daniels’ picks for School for the Deaf board membersFor decades, students at the Indiana School for the Deaf have learned mostly through American Sign Language, by communicating with their hands.
But that method appears to be facing a challenge after Gov. Mitch Daniels’ controversial appointments of three new board members with ties to the mainstreaming approach to teaching deaf children, an approach that encourages them to speak, to listen and sometimes read lips.
Many parents of students at the school remain firm believers in ASL and are alarmed at the governor’s picks.
Karl Zachmann, who has two children at the school on Indianapolis’ Northside, calls the appointments a sign of “rampant, overt and bigoted oppression” of deaf people who use ASL.
He and three other parents met last week with the governor’s education policy adviser, Scott Jenkins, to urge the governor to reconsider his appointments.
“We are hopeful the parents will give (the new board members) a chance,” said the governor’s spokeswoman, Jane Jankowski. Jenkins was on vacation and did not return phone calls.
At the core of the debate, which is raging nationally, is a disagreement over what deafness is. Some people see it as a vital part of a person’s identity, something to be embraced. To them, ASL is a defining, unifying characteristic.
“ASL is more than a language; it’s a culture,” said Kim Yurek, the secretary of the school’s parent organization, whose son, Philip, was a year old when he lost his hearing. Today, Philip is a sixth-grader at Indiana School for the Deaf and communicates enthusiastically through ASL — he said he doesn’t mind being deaf one bit. “It’s just how I am,” he said through his mother, “and I want to stay deaf.”
“It would be great if he was 100 percent in my culture,” said Kim Yurek, “but that’s not who he is. He’s deaf; he’ll be in the deaf culture.”
But others see deafness as a malady to be remedied and communicating through spoken language as a welcome alternative to ASL.
That discussion is not new, but with technological advances of the last decade, the spoken-language forces have become emboldened. New medical devices, such as improved digital hearing aids and cochlear implants, have made mainstreaming far more feasible. Eight of 10 families are now choosing that route, said Amy McConkey Robbins, a speech language pathologist who specializes in teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing children to communicate orally.
None of the new board members — Mary Buhner, Scott Rigney and Lucy Witte — would comment for this story. That includes a fourth new board member, Ann Reifel, whose appointment the school’s parents applaud. Reifel is deaf and communicates using ASL. She is the Indiana School for the Deaf’s first deaf board member in three years.
The board is made up of seven voting members and three nonvoting members. All four appointees are voting board members.
Jankowski declined to say directly that the governor was displeased with the school’s performance but added, “Like with any other school, we’re interested in improving the education and the accountability.”
The school’s test scores are low. Last spring, just 21 percent of its students passed both the math and English portions of ISTEP. And its cost is high; the school, which has 342 students, some of them residential, has an annual operating budget of $18.8 million.
As mainstreaming has gained steam, state schools for the deaf across the country, typically ASL bastions, are changing. Nebraska’s school closed in the past few years. Louisiana’s school closed, then reopened. Utah began offering a two-track program, with students and parents having a choice between oral learning and ASL.
Since the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975, ushered in an era of mainstreaming of deaf and other special-services students into public schools, Indiana School for the Deaf’s enrollment has dropped by nearly two-thirds.
By contrast, about 2,000 deaf children are educated in mainstream public schools, predominantly through the spoken word.
The school-aged deaf population is changing with their improved hearing, said Cheryl DeConde Johnson, president of the Colorado-based advocacy group Hands & Voices, which doesn’t take sides in the ASL debate, “and for schools for the deaf to be viable, they have to change, too.”
Daniels’ decision on the new oral-learning-leaning board members is the way of the future, she said, but the new board members “have to come in with an open mind and not an agenda.”
Almost immediately, an important decision looms: the hiring of a new Indiana School for the Deaf principal.
David Geeslin, the school’s superintendent, who communicates with ASL, said he would like to hire a person “who supports the use of ASL.”
Interviewing is expected to start next month.
Call Star reporter Will Higgins at (317) 444-6043.