Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Will the Courts Go Bi-Bi? IDEA 1997, the Courts, and Deaf Education

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Will the Courts Go Bi-Bi? IDEA 1997, the Courts, and Deaf Education

Article excerpt

An innovative instructional philosophy in the field of deaf education--bilingual-bicultural (bi-bi) education--may bring a new question before the courts. This fairly new and often controversial educational approach in the field of deaf education involves exposure to and acquisition of two languages, American Sign Language (ASL) and English. It also involves exposure to and involvement in two cultures, the Deaf culture and the Hearing culture (capitalization of the "d" in the word deaf refers to a culture and community in which ASL is the language of interaction and the rules of the culture surrounding the language are observed). Bi-bi involves using ASL as the primary, and often sole, language of interaction in the first 6-7 years of life with children who are deaf and exposing children to all aspects of Deaf culture (Paul, 1987).

Undoubtedly, the issue of how best to educate a child who is deaf whose primary language of interaction is ASL and who has had limited exposure to English will stir up a variety of challenges for educational systems that are currently accustomed and prepared to teach children who are deaf using methods that are English-based. It is likely that these challenges will result in debate about the methods used to educate the child who is deaf whose native language is ASL. If this debate finds its way into the court system, how will the issue be analyzed in light of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (IDEA `97)?

In previous litigation the federal courts have generally taken a "hands off" approach when it comes to mandating a particular method of instruction for children who are deaf. At the same time, the courts have also ruled against educational discrimination in the public schools toward children whose primary language is not English (e.g., Castaneda v. Pickard, 1981; Lau v. Nichos 1974;). But how might a plaintiff approach the courts when debating how to provide a free appropriate education to a child who is deaf and whose native language is ASL, a language that has no written or spoken form? How might the courts rule on such a case in light of their past decisions and the new language of IDEA `97?

This article reviews past litigation concerning the education of children who are deaf or hard of hearing and explores the new language of IDEA '97 as it affects communication issues for these children, all with the purpose of speculating about the future influence of IDEA `97 on the courts in terms of children whose native language is ASL. Part I of the article provides a brief history and background of deaf education in the United States. Part II examines the judicial history surrounding the deaf education debate. Part III discusses IDEA `97 as the amendments relate to issues surrounding the education of children who are deaf or hard of hearing, including children who are ASL users. Part IV concludes with implications and aspirations based upon the information in the article.


The formal education of children who are deaf began in the United States in the late 1800s, when Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet brought French Sign Language to the United States. Gallaudet was instrumental in bringing together a large number of children who were deaf to be educated at a new school, the American School for the Deaf and Dumb (Gannon, 1981). These children brought with them a variety of homemade signs. These home-made signs, combined with the French Sign Language to which these children were exposed, began to transform into a new and different language that came to be known as "The Sign Language." Gallaudet convinced legislators that children who were deaf could learn when given the opportunity to be educated using sign language. As a result, college programs were created that would prepare teachers to educate children who are deaf, and schools for the deaf began to be legislatively mandated in most states (Gannon). These state schools for the deaf came to be seen as a haven by individuals who were deaf. …

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