In the Spirit of Collegial Inquiry...

updated: 29 Apr 98

Ameliorating Human Disability

JPr:   As a point of interest, we in education of the deaf have tended to downplay the Koko*** phenomenon because too many hearing parents forced their deaf kids into the oral method (speech, speechreading/lipreading, and use of residual hearing no matter how minimal) when the kids needed ASL because they did not want their children "using monkey language." Koko did considerable harm to education of the deaf in some locales because the oralists used her example as "proof" of why sign language is not good for deaf kids.

LDL:   The Koko project shouldn't have affected the use of sign, anymore than if Koko had a larynx and was taught English. Would "purists" use it as an excuse to not teach their kids English? Thus, if ignorant people used Koko as a reason for not teaching kids to use sign, that wasn't the fault of the Koko project. It was the shame of the "oralists."

JPr:   You are exactly right, nevertheless, for the parents who wanted a "cop-out" position because they didn't want their kids to "look deaf," Koko provided the perfect reason. The oralist teachers indeed pushed them, too. Oralists tend to be zealots. Now, the deaf community has become equally zealous as a backlash to the hundred-eighteen year history of oralism in this country...started, for what it's worth, by none other than that dedicated teacher of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell (yup, you heard correctly!).

LDL:   I am, however, truly sorry that some people are so insensitive to the needs of the deaf. As I am sure you know, many of our brightest and best have had hearing problems, and the name of Helen Keller is legendary. She overcame two major difficulties before her. Our need to communicate is a powerful force. Perhaps, that is why some of us try to give a gorilla the opportunity to do likewise.

JPr:   Yes, some still are insensitive. Communication is the key, though, and most oral kids grow up and find the deaf community and convert themselves without parental interference or teacher interference. It's a really interesting phenomenon.

LDL:   Can I say for certain that Koko understands sign language like humans do? No. Still, from what little I have seen of the project, it looks promising and the concept of a gorilla being able to tell us something of what is in her mind appeals to my sense of adventure and wonder.

JPr:   True! We still don't talk about it much in my field, but that's because the oralists had such a stronghold for so long. We'll come into our own soon... I hope before I retire!

LDL:   I admire the work you do. At various times I have learned a few signs and the sign alphabet. It was my contention that some minimal knowledge is necessary because here are a people who have a need to communicate and, without sign, this can be difficult to impossible. My meager signing has allowed an exchange with deaf people and myself who, for various reasons, have met briefly in public. However, either my sign is inadequate to strike up a friendship, or it simply never happened. So my sign skills have remained marginal.

JPr:   Thanks. Some days I want to throw in the towel, but I have kept at it for a quarter century so far, and I guess I can keep it up 'til retirement.

Spelling is the most important, because it is the basis for all else in any of the world's sign languages. The handshapes used are used world wide, although not always for the same reasons. Good for you for learning the vital basics!!

LDL:   The world, while far from perfect, seems generally to be headed toward understanding the differences we find among us and learning, not just to tolerate, but to embrace those differences. Unfortunately, to those of us who have so long endured censure in one form or another, it is never quite fast enough.

JPr:   Exactly. We simply tend to move to where the censure is less than it will be another place. I couldn't live in the Deep South because I like having friends of color. I was severely censured.

CLF:   And interesting to see what capacities for "abstract thinking" might develop in an intelligent animal, once it has been given a tool necessary for such abstract thinking (the ability to *name* that which isn't tangibly there, as objects which aren't here at present but were in the past, or even general concepts).

I'd be curious to hear more about the intellectual development of deaf and blind children. At which age is deafness usually suspected/confirmed? If such a child begins to get special language training at a young age, how extensive of a vocabulary could one expect at, say, age 4 or age 6? I'd imagine (but this is largely guessing) that vocabulary and grammar for small children may be reinforced by what they overhear, by talk which they only half attend to while doing something else (multitasking- attending partly to something visual/kinesthetic, while also picking up parts of conversation).

The meaning of, say, the word "cup" may be made clear by the association of the sound with visual/tactile impressions of a cup, but memory for the word might be reinforced by hearing the sound in isolation (without the accompanying image of a cup). The deaf child might be in the same position as the reader - ie., vocabulary isn't reinforced in his mind unless he focuses his attention on one visual stimulus (the person signing or moving lips in front of him); he doesn't have the benefit of learning when not really paying attention, i.e. through inadvertantly overhearing speech. So, does it take longer for a fairly extensive vocabulary to become part of his permanent memory?

JPr:   Funny you should mention it ... I am speaking on cognition in children who are deafblind this summer at Mensa AG. Deafness is usually identified by age three, if it is severe to profound hearing loss, and by age five if the hearing loss is less significant and the child seems to be picking up on some sounds. Children can demonstrate very good self-help skills and look "almost normal" in infancy and toddlerhood if they simply watch the world around them and mimic what others do.

More abstract concepts are what usually give them away as having some problem... deafness is often initially thought to be cognitive disability (aka, "retardation" in the old, politically incorrect special education lingo). In fact, just last year we staffed in a seven year old Viet Namese boy who had been diagnosed in Ho Chi Minh City as "retarded" and Honolulu district, when his family immigrated, took that diagnosis at face value and kept him in a program for "retarded" children until a teacher of deaf kids saw him one day and said, "Nah, he's way deaf." Sure enough, he is and has lost seven years of critical language development time.

Even with special language training, a "way deaf" child still will lag significantly behind hearing same-age peers, usually because the mother and father don't communicate consistently with the deaf child as they would with hearing children in the family. By age 3, a hearing child understands and can produce hundreds of words/concepts. A deaf child, by comparison, may come to preschool with literally nothing. Or, that child may understand through repeated speechreading overly familiar phrases with repetetive consequences such as "time for your nap" (after which he/she is put to bed), "time to eat," (after which he/she is fed), etc. We can teach the deaf child a few new concrete concepts daily, and with constant use of American Sign Language that child might have learned several hundred "words"/concepts by the end of 180 school days in six hours a day of instruction, unless he/she misses a lot.

To fully answer your question, though, is a course that I would teach over a semester. The salient point is that 90 to 95 percent of deaf children have hearing parents (only 5 to 10 percent of all deaf children are lucky enough to come from deaf families) and only about 10 percent of those families learn to sign fluently enough that they can communicate in any depth with their children. This fact has been borne out by research continually over the past 200 some years of education of deaf children in this country. It is true worldwide, even more than here, too. The general public is appalled by this fact. When I talk to people who ask about what I do and I mention this fact, they often exclaim with dismay and sometimes anger that they "would learn to sign" if they had deaf children. Funny thing, though, when a child *is* born to such a family, the thing that is obvious to someone who *doesn't* have a deaf child becomes elusive to a family that does. I have no explanation except grieving, anger and guilt. The kids' self-esteem reflects this, too.

Deafblind children are usually identified fairly early, as their significant disability is more obvious. (This *is* actually a book I wrote with several others {grin}, not just a semester course!).

CLF:   I've wondered how congenitally blind people grasp certain concepts which seem inherently visual in nature and, also, the many visual analogies used in common language. For example, how does a blind person grasp the concept of very long distances? I could imagine him learning to understand the difference between small distances kinesthetically (as, by running his hand over a ruler to grasp "a foot", then comparing this to the feel of objects measuring 6 inches or 2 feet). However, how can he grasp the concept of a "towering skyscraper" (one which seemingly requires mainly visual memory of what such a building looks like) or words such as "the horizon" (which also doesn't seem to have a nonvisual mode for understanding). When such a person hears such figures of speech as "A lightbulb went on in my mind" or "I was left in the dark", what kind of understanding does he have?

JPr:   We also work with these concepts in teaching children who are blind... by spoken or written explanation. Just as I, personally, have never seen Jupiter except in pictures, and have never seen a black hole, I can understand at an intellectual level what these must look like in real life.

So we teach blind children about these concepts with the full understanding that they will be intellectual concepts. A friend who is blind once told me that the only way he could understand the concept of "skyscraper" or size of the Pentagon outside would be to travel the distance, on foot, and get a sense of time elapsed or effort expended. Conveying these concepts to a highly verbal blind student is much easier, though, than conveying any concepts to a child born deaf who cannot hear the primary medium of learning, the spoken word. Again, this is a semester course....hope I have shed some light on it for you, though.... {g}.

LDL:   I would hope that with computers and technology the resources are improving.

JPr:   It is, but it doesn't help deaf kids learn language... the old-fashioned way where caregivers do it naturally through every day interactions is still the best and most effective.

LDL:   We are often behind in these kinds of social issues ... are there other countries doing more for the deaf and blind? What more should we be doing?

JPr:   Where deafblind folks are concerned, Canada is doing more in some respects but the service providers are more paternalistic and patronizing in many other respects. We are still serving deaf, blind and deafblind students far better than any other nation on earth, judging from the feedback I get from my colleagues all over the world.

My friends in New Zealand bemoan how far behind their services are... the old patronizing British model, much like Canada's. Deaf people and blind people in those countries are fighting hard for their rights, though, and their families are helping. The service providers still have a "we know what's best for you", don't question the "professionals" attitude. When I went down to NZ to lecture to parents of students who are blind and deafblind, I referred to myself constantly as a "service provider" and the "professionals" by my favorite term, too. I made them all distinctly uncomfortable! But I have credentials six yards long so the "professionals" felt they had to listen politely. In fact, they are so into professional credentials that the sponsors published my entire resume in the program agenda brochure. It embarrassed the living daylights out of me. We are still number one.

LDL:   What more can we do? If you don't mind talking shop, that is.

JPr:   I never mind talking shop (you remember it is the one area I actually know well....{g}). We can simply continue respecting deaf, blind and deafblind folks as peers, giving them their space, and providing the supports that are needed (e.g., interpreters) no matter how much these cost on an ongoing basis. We just keep looking for what needs improving and go after it. We need to find a way now to get parents of deaf and deafblind kids willing to learn to communicate fluently with their kids.

LDL:   What's the story with Alexander Graham Bell, my curiosity is throbbing!

JPr:   Ol' AG was the son of a deaf mother (oral, no signs) and married a deaf woman (also oral, heiress to the National Geographic fortune... the home her folks lived in is in Washington, DC Northwest and is awesome). AG was first and foremost, in his words, "a teacher of the deaf." He invented a system known as "cued speech" which was basically an oral method with a few hand signs near the mouth to cue the deaf person more visibly to spoken language. His big thing was to go to the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf (CAID) and argue with Edward Miner Gallaudet (yup, Gallaudet, president of the college named for his father) about why oralism was better and made deaf folks less "different" than use of sign language would.

That doesn't sound so bad... but he went to the Milan Conference, an international deaf ed conference in 1880 and decreed that manual methods destroyed deaf lives. By then, he was already so well-known for his inventions that his credibility was way high and he influenced education of the deaf worldwide for the next entire century from that single speech. Moreover, he wrote and spoke about a form of eugenics for deaf people... he wanted to have some sort of legislation or something guaranteeing that deaf folks could NOT marry deaf folks and produce deaf children. Imagine a sense, a betrayal of his own mother's existence, and his wife's. He was quite the hermit and misanthrope, though.

The telephone was initially an attempt to create an amplification device for his wife (aka, "hearing aid"). His fame ruined a lot of deaf lives for a century. (Most kids don't function well in a strictly oral mode. Try saying these five words with NO voice to a friend: man, bad, pat, pan, pad. ...Or a host of others with those same basic sounds in varying positions. If you say these five in a row sotto voce in regular connected speech speed, can your friend identify which is which if never told ahead of time what you are doing? That is why speechreading is a fallacy. The best speechreaders get about one-fourth of any connected language. Imagine that in a college class while you are also trying to take notes...

*** Koko is discussed under section XVI, Animal Prodigies and the Human Animal.

Return to Colloquy main page