American Sign Language as a Pathway to Linguistic Competence

By Drasgow, Erik | Exceptional Children, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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American Sign Language as a Pathway to Linguistic Competence


Drasgow, Erik, Exceptional Children


The search for the most effective way to educate deaf students in America has a history of conflict among advocates of different approaches. For example, the period between the 1860s and the 1960s has been referred to as the "Hundred Years War" because of the enduring struggle between oral English proponents and manual signed language proponents (Lou, 1988). The conflict persists, although today it is embodied in the debate between advocates of the American Sign Language (ASL) bilingual/bicultural approach (e.g., Barnum, 1984; Drasgow, 1993; Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1989; Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996; Marmor & Petitto, 1979; Reagan, 1985) and advocates of the Manually Coded English (MCE)/Simultaneous Communication approach (e.g., Bornstein, 1982; Luetke-Stahlman, 1988a, 1988b; Maxwell & Bernstein, 1985).

This disagreement over the best approach for educating deaf students is not simply a discussion over which language or code is best to use, but rather it represents profound, and often polarized, differences in educational philosophy. That is, specific educational methods are grounded in, and driven by, the philosophy, or metatheory, one subscribes to. Metatheory refers to a way of thinking or a viewpoint about issues (Baars, 1986; Bunge & Ardila, 1987; cited in Paul & Jackson, 1993). The current conflict in deaf education, at the metatheory level, is between the clinical-pathological model (hereafter referred to as the clinical model) and the cultural model. The clinical model represents one point of view, namely, a view in which deafness is characterized as a disability stemming from a biological deficit (i.e., a lack of hearing). Thus, educational goals focus on overcoming, or compensating for, hearing loss so that students can learn to speak, read, and write English. Educational methods used to accomplish this goal include amplification, speech reading, and representing English on the hands (i.e., manually coded English).

Conversely, within the cultural model, deafness is viewed as a difference, not a disability. The conceptual framework of this model includes acknowledging that deaf people have a unique identity, with their own language, history, and social organization. From this viewpoint, deafness is a cultural, rather than biological, phenomenon. (For a complete discussion of the clinical and cultural models of deafness, see Lane, 1992 or Paul & Jackson, 1993.) Educational approaches based on this model embrace the use of ASL as the language of instruction.

The recent move towards the ASL bilingual/bicultural approach is rooted in part in the growing metatheoretical acceptance of the cultural model of deafness by both deaf and hearing individuals. The deaf community supports the cultural model because it empowers them with increased authority and responsibility to make decisions that influence the lives of deaf children and adults; likewise, the hearing community is beginning to support the model because of their increased knowledge and understanding of the value of ASL and Deaf culture (Paul & Jackson, 1993). This growing acceptance of the cultural model gains further support when it is combined with the increasing dissatisfaction with current outcomes of educational approaches based on the clinical model (e.g., the average reading level of deaf high school graduates is around 3rd or 4th grade level; Allen, 1986). Thus, the ASL approach does indeed have intuitive appeal for the cultural model advocates. But intuitive appeal alone does not warrant the implementation of an entirely new approach; instead, educational change, or reform, ought to be motivated by existing empirical research.

With this in mind, the purpose of this article is to present research that supports the shift to an ASL approach on empirical grounds. To do this:

* I will suggest guidelines for determining who may benefit from an ASL approach.

* I will review current theoretical perspectives on language acquisition.

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American Sign Language as a Pathway to Linguistic Competence
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