The Need for Fundamental Change
In his 1862 message to Congress, Abraham Lincoln stated that "the dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew (Lincoln, 1862/1940, p. 745).
The words of Lincoln, president when Gallaudet University was established, are a timely challenge to the present educational system for deaf and hard of hearing children, many of whom have the dubious distinction of being the only students in this nation who go to school without access to the most fundamental of educational components: communication.
The need and right to communicate with others, to exchange ideas and thoughts, to discuss the Russian Revolution or one's favorite author or the high salaries of professional athletes, the need to ask a teacher about a math problem-in short, the "right to language"-is necessary to educational growth and central to the human experience. Society exists, as John Dewey (1931/1967-1987) suggested, in and through communication.
What parent of a hearing child would tolerate the placement of his or her child in a school where there were no language peers or where the teacher could not communicate directly with that child? What parent would tolerate the inability of the school system to teach basic reading and writing skills, even as we tolerate the inability to develop and enhance a deaf or hard of hearing child's communication skills?
While it does not seem possible that there are children in America at the beginning of this millennium without communication, too many deaf and hard of hearing children have little or no language skills and limited communication access, both of which lead directly to social and linguistic isolation and high rates of academic failure. The one unchanging educational statistic continues to be that deaf and hard of hearing children leave school with third-grade reading skills (Marschark, 1997).
Why is this so? The reasons are complex, rooted in ignorance about hearing loss and communication development, lack of information and support for parents, and the failure to provide early and effective communication for deaf and hard of hearing children. Of equal importance, our educational system does not provide quality, communication-based educational programs for deaf and hard of hearing children. There is neither universal communication access nor constant, programmatic communication development in school. In addition, important fiscal and programmatic determinations inexorably flow from the least restrictive environment (LRE) mandate, limiting communication access and development and making it difficult for any kind of systemic change to occur.
There is no little irony here since the law and policy that should open doors for deaf and hard of hearing children do quite the opposite. Under the LRE mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a rich language environment is not required and indeed is often considered legally "segregated," whereas a communication-poor environment is often viewed as legally "inclusive." For many deaf and hard of hearing children, education is therefore a kind of Alice in Wonderland experience, where up is down and inclusion means exclusion.
Until there is clear legal recognition of the primacy of communication, the educational system cannot serve deaf and hard of hearing children in a broad, effective way, and we will lose another generation of those children.
The American ethic has been to ultimately recognize barriers placed before some American citizens, barriers that are so fundamentally harmful as to require a significant change in how our institutions function. But 46 years after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ended the de jure (if not de facto) segregation of African American children, 27 years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 25 years after what is now known as IDEA was enacted to ensure that a child's "unique" needs were met, and 135 years after Gallaudet University was founded, deaf and hard of hearing children continue in an educational world where there is insufficient communication and therefore insufficient education. …