Becca Balint: Reading the signs

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The sign language interpreters tagteamed as they translated for a researcher at the PEW Charitable Trusts. Lively panel discussions required quick work, and the concepts were complicated. Captivated by how a lengthy explanation could be summed up by one apt sign, I took every opportunity to speak with the PEW researcher and her two interpreters throughout the conference. Their insights gave me much to ponder as we in Vermont wrestle with the fallout from the closing of the Austine School.

When Austine closed after years of financial troubles, it was part of a national phenomenondeclining enrollment at schools dedicated to the education of deaf children as these students are "mainstreamed" into public schools. The hope was that student learning and opportunities would improve and deaf students would be better equipped to live and work in a hearing world. And the assumption was that deaf students learned in the same way as hearing students. Research at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) indicates this is not true.

Prof. Marc Marschark at NTID's Center for Research Partnerships asserts there are marked differences in the way that deaf students learn in comparison to hearing students. "You can't teach deaf kids as though they are hearing kids who can't hear," he says. Marschark's team interviewed thousands of deaf and hardofhearing students at the RIT site and at other locations in the Netherlands, England, Scotland and Australia, to determine, according to Marschark, "how they acquire new knowledge and how that knowledge is organized, understood, and communicated to others."

The researchers tracked eye movements, had the students perform memory tasks, and observed the students in classes taught by both hearing and deaf teachers. It's clear from NTID research that deaf students, even those using assistive technologies, have different strengths and challenges than hearing students and so, not surprisingly, need different things for a successful education. For example, deaf students tend to have better visualspatial memories than hearing students but often struggle with sequential memory. Arranging information visually and sequentially for deaf students will increase the likelihood that these students will successfully retain information.

It's critical that we figure this out. According to NTID, half of all deaf and hard of hearing students in the U.S. graduate from high school reading at or below a 4th grade reading level. And 86 percent of deaf and hard of hearing students in the U.S. are now mainstreamed in public schools, where they are often the only deaf student in the building. This can be emotionally and psychologically isolating for these students, but there are educational costs as well. Hearing students constantly receive information from ambient sourcesbackground conversations, TV, and radio. Deaf students need the same opportunity to gather together to share contextual and cultural information on current events and community happenings. Our current system (unintentionally) isolates these students, making it very difficult for deaf and hard of hearing students to have critical opportunities to interact with each other.

Vermont Senate Bill 66sponsored by Senators Pollina, White, and myself among others sought to create a special task force that would assess the current needs of the deaf community throughout Vermont and make recommendations for addressing those needs. Although it passed unanimously in the Senate, it is stalled in the House. While we in the legislature continue to push this bill forward, there is no time to waste. One important step would be for districts and schools to employ ubiquitous technology (Facetime, Google Chat, Skype) to bring isolated students together and facilitate connections with other ASLadept students and teachers. In this age of communicationan age wholeheartedly embraced by deaf students, I understandthere is no reason they should learn in isolation.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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