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The Impact of Education on Deaf Culture:

By Tara Smith

 July 25, 2014


The Impact of Education on Deaf Culture


There are a tremendous amount of questions that surround Deaf history and education -- focusing specifically on what will best serve individuals and the Deaf community as a whole. Noted by Mowry, "Current educational policies do not take into account the important role of the Deaf community and culture in enhancing Deaf people's lives" (Mowry, 1994, p. 647). A significant way to be involved in the community and having access to the "Deaf Way" comes with exposure. If students are being mainstreamed and not able to connect with other individuals who are Deaf, students are unable to foster growth and emotional wellbeing (Mowry, 1994). Here I will examine a few areas of Deaf Culture and education, first looking back in history at the Gallaudet University uprising, to the impact a child's education has into access to "Deafhood." Taking a step back, we will take a brief look into this area in Italy and take into account where we are now with education in the United States.

In the 1960s, the Gallaudet University uprising occurred. As an institution dedicated to providing a higher education of people either Deaf or hard of hearing there was an uproar because they had not been led by a Deaf president, since the institution was founded back in the year of 1864 (Fleischer & Zames, 2011). As this change came into place, it was acknowledged that it was essential to having a Deaf president in the educational system to show that Deaf people are leading themselves. This moment in history established a foundation for future movements (Fleischer & Zames, 2011).

Looking at the changes in the education of Deaf children, we can see Marcia Bernstein's experiences to understand the evolution of modern education. She first taught Deaf children from kindergarten to high school in Manhattan during the mid-sixties and later in the Bronx in the late sixties. At this time, Oralism was the main teaching method used at this time and she shared that she felt swayed into thinking that sign language was "bad" for Deaf children (Fleischer & Zames, 2011). She left and later returned in the late seventies, finding that the method changed to "total communication." In her experience she struggled with seeing this as being helpful for the students because of the profound differences in English and ASL. Research indicated that Deaf children of Deaf parents were able to better understand the concepts of language and grammar in comparison to children with hearing parents. After this was discovered, ASL became a tool used more often and fundamental in the education of Deaf children (Fleischer & Zames, 2011). As this change took place within the school systems, there was an impact on the education system and an ability to create an environment to aid in the development of an individual being apart of Deaf Culture.

Paddy Ladd notes that sign language users have opportunities to create communities to celebrate a cultural and linguistic environment. This is an area of both pride and comfort as noted by being able to adapt from one sign language to another and have a global way of communicating (Ladd, 2003). When looking at the education system for the Deaf, there are many different programs implemented. Residential programs are more than a school where many children who are Deaf attend school. They are a place to foster the language of the Deaf community as a whole. Here the language of ASL is shared throughout multiple generations. Individuals in this system who are raised by Deaf parents become role models both culturally and linguistically for Deaf individuals who have hearing parents. Once they have been apart of this community the individuals are involved in Deaf Culture in a new way unlike they could be exposed to at home (Supalla, 1994). It is fascinating to note that throughout much of history of Deaf education we see that ASL has been greatly oppressed as a language which often is due to misconceptions about the language itself and the area of bilingualism overall (Supalla, 1994). Without providing opportunities in the classroom setting to utilize ASL, the consequences demonstrate that individuals struggle to acquire ASL as their first language. Beyond this issue is that as children are mainstreamed in a school setting, they may not gain access to ASL at all. There are many aspects that need attention in the school systems of Deaf children to provide opportunity for ASL exposure and opportunity (Supalla, 1994).

Deaf schools allow newly Deaf entering children to become accustomed to Deaf norms, traditions and values that will then be able to be passed down to the following generations (Ladd, 2003). In contrast to the United States, Italian families are provided with the choice to send their child to a residential school or to a hearing school. If the family chooses to send their student to a hearing school they do not receive opportunity to learn sign language or to know other Deaf people (Corazza, 1994). From looking at perspectives in the US and in Italy, there seems to be much concern in the way the impact of attending a hearing school will have on individuals being apart of Deaf Culture and opportunity to be apart of the Deaf community.

There are varied opinions in the way schools are set up and what the education inside the system exactly looks like from the literature. Where do we go from here with all of the concerns and questions that arise when looking at Deaf Culture and education? One proposed model addresses educating Deaf children focuses on using ASL for instruction within the classroom and teaching English through reading and writing as a separate language. This program was presented as being preschool through high school. There are guiding principles outlined in the program from family support to providing educational opportunities to enable the students to learn the same curriculum as their hearing peers (Johnson, Liddell & Erting, 1994).

In a study that examined the social networks of Deaf students, two groups of individuals were looked at. The social networks of high school students in a residential setting and those in a mainstream setting were the concentration areas for the study (Mowry, 1994). With many Deaf people born into hearing families, it is essential to have a community in which Deaf people can learn about Deaf Culture. As we have seen, the educational background for each individual can vary, with unstable opportunities to gain access to the Deaf community (Mowry, 1994). The study found that both groups of Deaf students showed comparable proportions of the social networks, favoring friends as their number one supporters. The differences that the survey showed included the number of friends also being Deaf showing higher for the group in a residential school verses mainstreamed. Along with this was a higher involvement in Deaf organizations for social activities (Mowry, 1994). As the education systems continue to change in the United States, it would be imperative to understand the impact these changes have had and will continue to have on Deaf Culture.   





Corazza, S. (1994). The history of sign language in italian education of the deaf. The deaf way: perspectives from the international conference on deaf culture. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.


Fleischer, D., & Zames, F. (2011). The disabilities rights movement (ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


Johnson, R., Liddell, S., & Erting, C. (1994). A brief overview of "unlocking the curriculum".The deaf way: perspectives from the international conference on deaf culture. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.


Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding deaf culture in search of deafhood. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.


Mowry, R. (1994). What deaf high school seniors tell us about their social networks. The deaf way: perspectives from the international conference on deaf culture. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.


Supalla, S. (1994). Equality in educational opportunities: the deaf version. The deaf way: perspectives from the international conference on deaf culture. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.




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