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Abstract

Deaf education, particularly in the United States, is an ongoing and controversial conundrum. The term “deaf” applies not only to a medical diagnosis that defines hearing loss and speech ability but also to a cultural and linguistic recognition of a way of life that is deeply rooted in deaf community practices often unknown to “hearing” communities. The tension between these different philosophical and epistemological worldviews starts the moment a baby is identified as “deaf.” This identification affects language and modality choice, school placement, literacy instruction, curriculum, academic achievement, marriage partners, social groups and organization, and even meaningful and equitable employment. The inherent struggle in deaf education is the desire on the part of monolingual, hearing-centric educators, professionals, and parents to rely on technological solutions or therapeutic interventions to produce “hearing” speaking citizens. These participants are expecting the same outcomes from deaf children as they are from hearing children, emphasizing auditory/oral learning without understanding the sociocultural, linguistic, and biological challenges experienced by deaf children. While inclusive education may seem to “accommodate” the idea of equality, perversely those who experience the process can vouch for the inequalities, inequity, and injustice in monolinguistic deaf education. Most of society has yet to recognize that education of deaf children is necessarily embodied in a far more complex cultural and linguistic ecosystem. For American deaf persons, this ecosystem involves American Sign Language, visual learning strategies within culturally and linguistically driven content instruction, and cultural traditions and experiences that are indigenous to deaf communities. How are best practices addressed when the medium of instruction differs in modality and structure (i.e., spoken language vs. signed language); when reading instruction involves a different mapping process; when school assessments are only available in a spoken language; and when lack of teacher qualifications may hinder learning. Historically, conflict over language ideologies has dominated academic discourse about classroom pedagogy, literacy, teacher training, and educational research. Issues of power and language dominance emerge around curriculum instruction and assessment, as deaf individuals struggle to take their rightful place in a largely hearing deaf education environment. However, both hearing and deaf scholars in the field of neuroscience, child development, and Deaf studies have contributed to critical understanding about a bilingual-bimodal ecosystem in deaf education. This research has set the stage for reevaluating systematic, linguistic, and pedagogical traditions and has raised ethical questions regarding education and sign language research with deaf participants. By including members of the deaf community in the discourse, the emergence of a new practice of bilingual-bimodal education for deaf children secures a sociocultural and sociolinguistic foundation for all deaf children. Research findings support the veracity of a bilingual-bimodal deaf education classroom.
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Bicultural, Bilingual, and Bimodal Deaf Education
Gabrielle Jones, University of California San Diego Division of Social Sciences
https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.457
Published online: 26 April 2021
Summary
Deaf education, particularly in the United States, is an ongoing and controversial
conundrum. The term “deaf” applies not only to a medical diagnosis that defines hearing
loss and speech ability but also to a cultural and linguistic recognition of a way of life that
is deeply rooted in deaf community practices often unknown to “hearing” communities.
The tension between these different philosophical and epistemological worldviews starts
the moment a baby is identified as “deaf.” This identification affects language and
modality choice, school placement, literacy instruction, curriculum, academic
achievement, marriage partners, social groups and organization, and even meaningful
and equitable employment.
The inherent struggle in deaf education is the desire on the part of monolingual, hearing-
centric educators, professionals, and parents to rely on technological solutions or
therapeutic interventions to produce “hearing” speaking citizens. These participants are
expecting the same outcomes from deaf children as they are from hearing children,
emphasizing auditory/oral learning without understanding the sociocultural, linguistic,
and biological challenges experienced by deaf children. While inclusive education may
seem to “accommodate” the idea of equality, perversely those who experience the
process can vouch for the inequalities, inequity, and injustice in monolinguistic deaf
education. Most of society has yet to recognize that education of deaf children is
necessarily embodied in a far more complex cultural and linguistic ecosystem. For
American deaf persons, this ecosystem involves American Sign Language, visual learning
strategies within culturally and linguistically driven content instruction, and cultural
traditions and experiences that are indigenous to deaf communities. How are best
practices addressed when the medium of instruction differs in modality and structure
(i.e., spoken language vs. signed language); when reading instruction involves a different
mapping process; when school assessments are only available in a spoken language; and
when lack of teacher qualifications may hinder learning.
Historically, conflict over language ideologies has dominated academic discourse about
classroom pedagogy, literacy, teacher training, and educational research. Issues of power
and language dominance emerge around curriculum instruction and assessment, as deaf
individuals struggle to take their rightful place in a largely hearing deaf education
environment. However, both hearing and deaf scholars in the field of neuroscience, child
development, and Deaf studies have contributed to critical understanding about a
bilingual-bimodal ecosystem in deaf education. This research has set the stage for
reevaluating systematic, linguistic, and pedagogical traditions and has raised ethical
questions regarding education and sign language research with deaf participants. By
including members of the deaf community in the discourse, the emergence of a new
Gabrielle Jones, University of California San Diego Division of Social Sciences
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practice of bilingual-bimodal education for deaf children secures a sociocultural and
sociolinguistic foundation for all deaf children. Research findings support the veracity of
a bilingual-bimodal deaf education classroom.
Keywords: bilingualism, biculturalism, bimodalism, bilingual education, sociocultural
perspectives, Deaf epistemology, linguistic rights, language deprivation
Subjects: Alternative and Non-formal Education , Education and Society
Introduction: Reclaiming Deaf Education by Deaf People for Deaf People
The implications of the sociocultural movement “nothing about us without us” in regard to the
field of Deaf education reminds us that there are ethical questions of social and linguistic
oppression by society within the day-to-day experiences of deaf children. As a marginalized
community of 22 million Deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States, differences in
experience are not based on ethnicity, gender, religion, or race but rather on language access,
particularly biological sensory pathways (auditory, visual, or both).
For Deaf people to reclaim education of the Deaf requires understanding the role of Deaf
epistemology in education. Epistemology is the individual/personal and social construct of
reality based on shared or similar experiences. Through personal testimonies and accounts of
deaf individuals, deaf epistemologies incorporate socioculturally constructed knowledge
around visual learning and visual language experiences of the Deaf community (Hauser et al.,
2010; Holcomb, 2010). There are differences within Deaf communities in how deaf people
experience the world, but the underlying common denominator is ensuring language access,
particularly via visual learning and visual language.
A hearing person relies on sound to function in life, whereas a deaf person may or may not
rely on sound, but instead relies on sight. Visual learning is a major component of cognitive
development among both hearing and deaf children. Visual language is a powerful component
for a deaf person to navigate the world and to acquire the critical capacity for executive
functioning (Hall et al., 2017) as well as other cognitive abilities such as visual attention (Dye
et al., 2009), visual spatial skills (Emmorey, 2002), and theory of mind (Schick et al., 2007).
The necessity of knowing how to navigate in the world requires an understanding of how the
Deaf community creates an accessible, visual, and safe environment for deaf children. This
becomes the basic blueprint and shows us the repertoire of practices in a Deaf-generated
teaching and learning environment. It is only by learned knowledge and validating Deaf
community experiences that any hearing person can understand the obligation, comfort, and
safety needed in their interaction with deaf people. Deaf scholars, educators, linguists,
anthropologists, and professionals in other disciplines are crucial contributors to the
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emerging field of deaf epistemologies (Kuster et al., 2017). Research on sign languages has
identified the importance of biodiversity and neurodiversity within marginalized communities
and to how we educate deaf children.
In the 20th century, the use of lowercase “deaf” and capitalized “Deaf” helped to differentiate
those who are deaf but hearing-oriented and adapting to auditory/oral practices. “Deaf” was
solely intended to represent signing communities (Padden & Humphries, 1988). This
differentiation has caused a political and social divide, especially where bilingualism and
bimodalism are concerned (Cawthon & Garberoglio, 2017; Horejes, 2014). For the purpose of
this article, lowercased “deaf” is used to refer to the generic term, which applies to all deaf
populations, including those who are part of the Deaf community. “Deaf” is reserved for the
cultural, social, and political advocacy of signing communities.
Language-Rich Environment Versus Least Restrictive Environment
The underlying conflict in deaf education lies between what is believed to be the ideal
language learning environment and the context for which language learning occurs.
Language-Rich Environment
Language is the crux of all human relationships and manifests itself within meaningful and
shared contexts of community users. For hearing people, spoken language is enhanced and
facilitated by the auditory feedback loop, allowing them to self-regulate their own verbal
contributions. Deaf people, however, rely on the visual and tactile feedback loop, depending
on their functional hearing and vision, to monitor their development. The access to language
in a visual environment is what allows spontaneous incidental learning to occur.
Language acquisition occurs in a natural setting, where incidental learning is a byproduct of
social engagement, which in turn fosters cognitive development and world knowledge
production (Prinz & Strong, 1998). The amount of incidental learning depends on free access
to language use, interactions with language role models, and consistent exposure to language
communities (signed or spoken; García, 2009).
The growing field of signed language linguistics validates the role sign language plays in the
deaf community, which is the fastest growing language other than English taught in the
United States (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). The fact that more Americans are
learning American Sign Language (ASL) is a start but does not guarantee a rich language
environment for the deaf child. The circumstances surrounding a deaf child’s birth raise
epistemological conflicts with hearing parents, who are not equipped to address the
immediate linguistic needs of the child. Medical professionals are the primary resource for
parents seeking understanding about their deaf child, whether such professionals are
knowledgeable or not. This startling lack of expertise among professionals in the speech and
hearing sciences has drawn Deaf scholars to introduce into public discourse linguistic and
cultural views regarding Deaf people (Ladd, 2003; Padden & Humphries, 2005).
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The underlying conflict of language acquisition is centered around the question which
language should be introduced to a deaf child to naturally acquire: the more-or-less
inaccessible spoken language of the popular majority or the fully accessible signed language
of the marginalized minority?
The dominant belief has historically been to expose the deaf child to the spoken word using
auditory devices. This is despite the increasingly clear research evidence that spoken
language access, speech production, and auditory processing do not guarantee success. While
technology enhances one’s ability to perceive sounds (Geers et al., 2009; Nicholas & Geers,
2006), only slightly better results are found with use of cochlear implants compared with
hearing aids (Tomblin et al., 1999). And even with these devices, some studies suggest that
spoken language outcomes are still unpredictable (Cosetti & Waltzman, 2012; Fagan & Pisoni,
2010). According to Geers et al. (2009), the spoken language outcomes for children with
cochlear implants resulted in scores of 47% on receptive language tests and 39% on
expressive language tests when compared to hearing standards. As Johnson (2006) put it, the
large variability in speech perception and linguistic abilities remains “substantial.” Of the
40,000 deaf children with cochlear implants, only 4% were identified by school professionals
to be at a functional hearing ability and 50% were severely limited (Mitchell & Karchmer,
2004). These findings indicate that, regardless of best efforts, access via hearing and speech
leaves substantial risk to language and cognitive development.
Auditory devices, both cochlear implants or hearing aids, play a varied role along a continuum
from supporting the “hearing of environmental noise” to “hearing” and comprehending
language. Many deaf and hard-of-hearing persons wear auditory devices to support hearing
but rely primarily on their visual language to function in life. Some have argued that earlier
implantation of the device makes a significant difference in spoken language acquisition.
Unlike in the past when the average discovery of deafness occurred around the age of two, an
infant’s hearing level can now be identified within a month of delivery. The Early Hearing
Detection and Intervention Act (PL 115-71) of October 2017 was passed to identify newborn
babies’ hearing levels and to provide intervention services within six months. This opportunity
becomes a battleground for disputes about required early intervention. As soon as the baby is
identified as deaf, in general, auditory/aural professionals pressure hearing parents of deaf
children to choose cochlear implant (CI), a technological device that activates auditory
stimulation for spoken language development (Sharma & Campbell, 2011). Proponents of
spoken language development strongly believe that “auditory deprivation during this period
prevents appropriate maturation of language processing areas within the cortex and results in
long lasting effects on the eventual speech perception ability of the CI recipient” (Kral et al.,
2001). Efforts are made to prohibit any sign exposure for the sake of auditory/aural
development.
Neuroscience research into neuroplasticity has shown that regardless of the input, whether
auditory or visual, any synaptic activity strengthens the cortex area and facilitates language
development (Pettito et al., 2012). When auditory stimuli are not accessible, the visual stimuli
take over (Kral et al., 2001). Evidence of infants being able to discriminate hand shapes as
early as seven months old demonstrates the early activation of the “auditory
cortex” (Kovelman et al., 2014; Petitto et al., 2012). A child’s brain undergoes significant
development between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, and these early years are critical for
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language development. Bellugi et al. (1989) and Moreno et al. (2018) found that the activation
of language acquisition in bilinguals, whether signed or spoken, and in both hearing and deaf
children, occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain in the cortical language area.
Early exposure to language, spoken or signed, is critical. As with many deaf children who do
not gain sufficient access to language via hearing and speech only, language acquisition
studies show that deaf children exposed to sign language late in the critical period for
language learning develop structural delays (Mayberry, 2010; Mayberry & Lock, 2003).
Ideally, exposure to sign language benefits all babies, and particularly those who are deaf,
visual learners. According to Ferjan-Ramirez et al. (2016), the timing of language experience
affects the organization of neural language processing and language representation in the
human brain.
The newborn screening test is, in fact, the perfect opportunity for parents to initiate sign
language exposure. The explosion in the use of “baby signs” for hearing babies have had huge
communicative effects, particularly because gross motor skills are developed earlier than
expressive speech. To withhold this benefit from deaf babies is simply preposterous. Learning
sign language, or any language, does not harm the deaf child (Humphries et al., 2016).
The overall myth that sign language interferes with spoken language parallels with the myth
regarding bilingualism interfering with academic achievement (García, 2009). Kovelman et al.
(2014) found that a bilingual brain is much more flexible and receptive to the introduction of
another language. Bilinguals show conceptual and cognitive flexibility and adaptability (Sun et
al., 2019); ability to reconstruct perceptual situations; divergent thinking skills and sympathy
towards others (Crosbie, 2014); heightened spatial and verbal reasoning and semantic
relationships between words. Learning another language brings economic job opportunities
and biological benefits, such as delaying dementia and Alzheimer’s (Craik et al., 2010).
In the same manner, deaf children exposed to American Sign Language are, in fact, bilinguals
(Grosjean, 2010). The cognitive benefits of learning sign language include the ability to
engage in complex discourse (Harris, 2010), enhanced spatial cognition (Pyers et al., 2010),
lexical comprehension (MacDonald et al., 2018), greater creativity, developed cognitive
flexibility, enhanced episodic memory, enhanced visual feedback and self-monitoring (Bavelier
et al., 2006), and enhanced eye gaze and self-regulation (Brooks et al., 2020). These
metacognitive abilities set the stage for a more comprehensive understanding of what speech
entails.
Being exposed to both modalities (auditory and visual) will not harm one language or the
other (Lillo-Martin et al., 2016; see also Humphries et al., 2012). Depriving an infant of sign
language, however, can lead to language deprivation syndrome, which is a psychological
diagnosis that identifies an individual with language dysfluency and deficiencies in behavioral,
emotional, and social adjustment (Glickman, 2009; Hall, 2017). The influence of language
deprivation on deaf individuals can lead to cognitive deficits (Mayberry, 2002) and has
negative socioemotional challenges, depression (Kushalnagar et al., 2017) even leading to
higher suicide rates (Embree et al., 2017).
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Least Restrictive Environment
The discussion about placing a deaf child within the ideal educational environment raises
some conflicting challenges from the deaf epistemological viewpoint. Both Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act enacted in 1973 and the 94-142 law, the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act, enacted in 1975, pushed for disabled children to be placed in the mainstream
classroom. The goal was to eliminate marginalization and provide equitable education access
for all children with disabilities. The so-called Least Restrictive Environment ensured equal
access for all children with disabilities within the “regular” education classroom to the
“maximum extent that is appropriate.” Deaf children were provided the right to assimilate
within hearing classrooms with support provided via teacher modified curriculum and extra
services (notetakers, interpreters, aides, and additional support).
While such an act may appear to honor the “equity” standard, the ramifications are far more
complicated and do not always benefit the deaf child’s social, emotional, and academic
growth. Being the only deaf mainstreamed child within the class or school puts pressure on
the child to be like their peers; pressure to “speak” like his/her peers, act and impress them
even when he or she does not fully understand what’s going around him or her.
Communication becomes the measuring factor for success, and speech is not a guarantee.
Studies have shown that mainstream children end up isolated, depressed, lonely, and
frustrated because of a lack of communication (Ramsey, 1997; Tucker, 2010).
Being mainstreamed with a larger number of deaf peers, however, alleviates the pressure to
be hearing. Chances are that the deaf individuals will interact among themselves. While this
context provides some relief in engaging with like-minded peers, a large number of deaf
children end up falling behind for various reasons, including lack of language exposure at
home (Ramsey, 1997) and lack of qualified and competent sign language interpreters. For the
deaf community, this law has raised ethical questions with regard to the effectiveness of
inclusive education versus education at Deaf residential schools. Allowing deaf students to
sink or swim in an effort to “include” them can negatively influence long term social and
academic outcomes.
According to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), “inclusion” should also mean full access
to all content knowledge in the natural signed language (WFD, 2018a). Understanding the
socioemotional, linguistic, and academic needs of Deaf children requires paying attention to
the social interactions, the quality of the delivery of instruction, and their socioemotional well-
being. It is difficult for hearing children to comprehend the strenuous experiences of deaf
children in a mainstream environment, which has been compared to a hearing person being
put in a foreign classroom with a glass wall around their head where the spoken language is
only accessible via lip-reading.
Being pulled out of a comfortable environment with other deaf children and placed in an
uncomfortable one with only hearing children who do not know your native language is a
lonely journey. Immigrant hearing children encounter similar challenges, but their home is
their safety net. An estimated 95% of deaf children come from hearing families who do not
sign, so their safety net is nonexistent (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2004). The “dinner table
syndrome” refers to the common experience of missing shared family conversations at the
table, which has huge emotional ramifications on a deaf individual (Meek, 2020). Thus,
language access becomes a defining measure of progress, both socially and academically.
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There are deaf individuals who “survive” this ordeal, but at what cost? Lack of communication
produces a lack of confidence and may contribute to an influx of middle school deaf
mainstreamed students from ages 10 to 13 into residential schools.
Transfer students can present a challenge for state residential schools. Teachers have to deal
with preteens who are not fluent in ASL and who come with socioemotional issues. Deaf
schools have always been a safe space where a deaf child is no longer in the minority (O’Brien
& Placier, 2015). However, due to ASL dysfluency, these deaf students transferred from
mainstream schools experience a large amount of unnecessary stress.
Historically, state residential schools have served a strong purpose with many advantages for
deaf students. In the 1800s, deaf schools were preparatory environments where deaf children
were trained for reintroduction to society. The opposite effect brought them closer to form a
community that predominantly shares a common signed language. Strong teacher-student
bonds fostered a healthy learning environment. These natural social interactions fostered
community support, collegiality, and access to role models. These Deaf role models were vital
transforming figures who showed the children how to live in this world. As a result, the rich
social exchange flourished into a cultural center (Padden & Humphries, 2005). The context of
such a close-knit community formed Deaf identities. The security provided in this environment
encouraged deaf children to later return to the school as employees. This cycle supported
employment opportunities for deaf professionals. The implementation of mainstreaming laws,
which favor the least restrictive environment, led to the closure of many residential schools.
Failure in the mainstream often leads to placement in a residential school. These heritage
centers in some cases have become less desirable options instead of the enriched
environments that they were meant to be for deaf students.
There are several experimental models of bilingual bimodal deaf education classrooms. In the
co-enrollment model, a large number of deaf students are enrolled within a hearing classroom
and are taught by deaf adults and hearing teachers (see Hong Kong Models in Marschark et
al., 2015). Residential schools for the deaf involve a large proportion of certified teachers and
staff, both deaf and hearing, who sign fluently. Early childhood parent education programs
emphasize spoken language and sign language in the early years (see Nussbaum et al., 2012).
Bicultural, Bilingual, and Bimodal Deaf Education
The historical notion of a “melting pot,” which involves acculturation to a favored culture, is
no longer applicable in today’s society. The contribution of diverse funds of knowledge are to
be recognized, taught, and shared within the larger sociocultural framework (Moll et al.,
2005). The complexities of culture, language, and modality, which are politically driven,
interfere with learning for the deaf child. The uniqueness of Deaf culture is intricately woven
across racial, gender, sexual, and national identities.
Biculturalism: Recognizing Deaf Cultural Capita in Deaf Education
Biculturalism implies the knowledge and interaction of two or more cultures within a person’s
experience. Deaf people are bicultural in that they transmit and exchange values and
traditions within their own Deaf communities and also participate within the hearing
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community. The accumulation of Deaf knowledge is demonstrated through language,
literature, history, and the arts. In the last 20 years, this rich cultural heritage has slowly
begun to flourish into a new discipline within the academic world (Bauman & Murray, 2010).
Historical Overview of Biculturalism
Historically, the majority of educators of deaf children primarily came from hearing middle
class, White communities. Their goal in education was to remedy the language gap. They did
not fully grasp that language was only one aspect of the Deaf world. The presence of Deaf
culture, history, and literature carries sociocultural linguistic wealth into the academic
discourse. A paradigm shift from the medical view to the sociocultural and linguistic view has
empowered Deaf communities to take ownership of their own teaching and learning.
Yosso (2005) emphasized “capital” community cultural wealth as capital for marginalized
communities. Cultural capital provides reciprocated benefits for both the learner and the
learned. By extracting funds of knowledge from scholars, educators, and community members
who are themselves Deaf, students can learn the intricacies of cultural exchanges within the
community. These intricacies are broader than just deafness; their world also includes race,
gender, sex, nationality, and disability. Embracing the additional cultural experiences that
come from such accumulated capita requires a conscientious teacher. The instructor must
embed ways of being within the classroom and engage the various intersectionalities that
define deaf individuals. Intersectionality is identified by more than one culture and deals with
multifaceted oppressions such as being female in a male-dominated world, being Black in a
White-dominated culture (see Dunn & Anderson, 2019), or being deaf in a hearing controlled
environment.
Student/Teacher Implications
Not only do we need to focus on deaf students’ cultural needs but also on teachers’
challenges. Hearing teachers of deaf students’ credentials are being questioned due their lack
of signing ability and cultural understanding. Hiring of deaf teachers brings back deaf role
models into the classroom (Shantie & Hoffmeister, 2000). Qualification for teacher
preparation programs are primarily based on hearing norms, and therefore many Deaf
teachers struggle to pass biased state mandated multiple subject tests. Examples of such
biased test items are the expectation to engage in music education and teach literacy
instruction using phonology. Hearing administrations have expressed doubts as to whether
deaf teachers are properly prepared for the task (Simms & Thumann, 2007). These concerns
raise the question of inequitable practices being dismissed on racial matters. Qualified Deaf
teachers of color are underrepresented within Deaf education (Simms et al., 2008) leading to
evaluating long term discriminatory practices.
An important factor to consider in addressing equity in deaf education is that the
demographics of teachers of the deaf do not match the ethnic diversity of the deaf student
population (Andrews & Covell, 2007). Mitchell (2006) report described a drop from earlier
reports of 25% of Deaf Caucasians and an increase to 18% of Deaf Hispanics. The Asian and
Black populations have remained the same at 4% and 15%, respectively. For K-12 teachers of
the deaf, 91% are Caucasian, and of that group 22% are Deaf. Only 2% of the total teacher
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population consists of minorities and deaf people. The more recent report by the National
Deaf Center (2019) shows the second most popular field of degree after business for deaf
blacks, chose the teaching profession (10.8%) with deaf caucasian still leading the field
(12.4%).
As with other populations, the lack of teachers of color in schools impact young deaf children
of color. They bring their cultural experiences into the day-to-day lives of deaf children and
pave the way to feeling secure in a complex world. In addition to addressing Deaf identity,
biracial, bisexual, and multinational identity challenges must be addressed in educational
research (Simms et al., 2008).
Schools and teacher training programs need to recognize the significant role of d/Deaf
communities, particularly deaf people of color, in ensuring cultural and linguistic vitality. For
sustainability and a well-rounded education for young deaf children, increasing the numbers
and diversity of deaf teachers in both deaf education and general education is a critical
immediate and future need.
Bilingualism: Sign Language as a Human Right
Bilingualism implies the knowledge of two or more distinct languages. ASL is a fully fledged
language with its own phonology, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics (Stokoe et al., 1965)
and is used by an estimated 250,000–500,000 people in the United States. Defying the notion
that signed language is universal, the language registry Ethnologue.com records the existence
of 142 signed languages in the world. Thousands more are yet to be discovered and analyzed
(Eberhard et al., 2019).
In the U.S. Deaf education, a deaf child is considered bilingual when he or she is learning both
ASL and English (Grosjean, 2010). ASL is a manual, spatially constructed and polymorphemic
language (Aronoff et al., 2005). For the deaf child, language proficiency in ASL and English
depends on social exposure, language accessibility and opportunities, parental involvement,
and school placement.
Historical Overview of Bilingualism
In the early 1800s, bilingual deaf education was already in place within U.S. residential
schools (Baynton, 1996; Padden & Humphries, 1988). The transmission of instruction was in
sign language. The 2nd International Congress of Education of the Deaf held in Milan in 1881
banned the use of sign language within the deaf classroom, eliminating deaf teachers and
enforcing long-standing beliefs about the superiority of speech over sign. The Oralism
movement (1800s–1970s) intended to assimilate and acculturate deaf individuals within the
hearing world using auditory/aural practices. Ironically, this oppressive movement caused a
natural response in which the Deaf communities gathered and persistently used sign language
among themselves (Anglin-Jaffe, 2013).
The devastating impact of this decision had a ripple effect on deaf education and produced
mediocre academic results. These oppressive practices are today viewed as acts of audism.
Audism, according to Humphries (1975), represents any form of audiocentric oppression
where supremacy of hearing or audiocentric practices are imposed on the Deaf community. It
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was not until 2010 that a formal apology for the banning of sign language in 1890 was issued
in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the 21st ICED conference. They reiterated many countries’
recognition of sign language as a human right for all deaf individuals (see WFD, 2018b).
Student/Teacher Implications
For hearing bilinguals, language exposure to good role models, including Deaf role models,
provides a firm foundation in one native language to make the transfer to another language.
Cummins (1984) reiterated the underlying foundation of a first language as a bridge to second
language learning, describing the process of becoming native users in a first language first
from a Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, which on average takes about 2 or 3 years
to master, to a Cognitive Academic Language proficiency, which requires 5–7 years to
complete. Most hearing students will have had the social foundation at home prior to school
entry, allowing them to come prepared into the classroom, whereas for deaf children, school
becomes the language learning environment with like-minded peers. It is generally advised to
build the first language foundation prior to learning a second language (fig. 1).
Figure 1. Typical route to bilingualism.
The overwhelming majority of Deaf students with hearing parents arrive at school with
substantial variation in language skills. More often than not, deaf students have no knowledge
of sign language. They end up socializing with their own peers and become socially adept in a
signed language. The students’ language-expressive abilities in ASL are restricted to social
conversations, and before they have a chance to start discussing academic content, they are
pressured into learning content materials in English. The pressure of achieving English
language competency is hindered by their inability to converse content knowledge in ASL.
This predominance of English within the classroom puts students at risk for failing
academically (see Hoffmeister & Caldwell-Harris, 2014). Evidence of language being the main
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reading predictor as opposed to phonological awareness justifies the transfer necessary for
literacy development (Mayberry et al., 2002, 2010), despite the criticism of the oral education
proponents (Mayer & Leigh, 2010; fig. 2).
Figure 2. Typical language development of deaf and hard of hearing students.
The situation is compounded by teachers who lack social competency and fluency in ASL and
are unable to comprehend deaf children’s signing (Shantie & Hoffmeister, 2000). Deaf people
are more often fluent in ASL than their hearing teachers and modify their signing to
accommodate hearing teachers’ lack of language proficiency. The delivery of academic
content by these not fluent, hearing teachers is watered down in an attempt to meet the needs
of the deaf students (Jones, 2013). However, this approach does not meet the needs of the
students, but rather the needs of the linguistically unqualified teachers. This cultural and
linguistic conflict has contributed to academic and language delays of deaf students (Anglin-
Jaffe, 2013).
To remediate this problem, sign language fluency for teachers of the deaf in the delivery of
content knowledge is a major requirement for most bilingual-bicultural deaf education
programs (Humphries, 2013). English as a second language via written exposure has become
the most consistent approach in bilingual-bicultural deaf programs. Studies have found
interplay between ASL and written English: ASL’s role in making links to print through
fingerspelling has been linked to English literacy; “sandwiching” and “chaining” techniques
(Bailes, 2001; Humphries & Macdougall, 1999); ASL phonology in English development
(Bailes, 2001; Crume, 2013); and content in ASL during reading and pre reading to aid
development (Kuntze, 2003). Many of these strategies are norms in bilingual-bimodal
instruction. When teachers are fluent in both languages and provide instruction using the
various expressive and receptive avenues, the deaf child will use both interactively.
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Figure 3. Bilingual approach to language development for deaf and hard of hearing.
Many schools for the deaf make sure opportunities are provided to enhance social and
academic language for both ASL and English. ASL-only and English-only zones are small
instructional ways to fulfill a pure language context. But in Deaf education, instruction always
involves a dynamic interplay between both ASL and English (see Figure 3). Instructional
opportunities for content knowledge in ASL provide the foundation for reading and writing
English. Humphries (2013) described this practice as schooling in ASL.
Bimodalism: Expressive and Receptive Modality
Bimodalism is the use of two or more modalities when communicating in either language.
Modality is the form and process by which language is experienced and expressed (visual,
auditory, or tactile).
Reading, writing, speaking, listening, signing, cueing, and fingerspelling are not languages in
themselves. They are modes to express language. One speaks, reads, cues or writes in English
or in French, and one signs in ASL or in Langue Signee Francaise (LSF). Both expressive and
receptive modalities (visual/gestural, auditory/oral, tactile) may fall under one language based
on the nature of its representation. The most common receptive and expressive forms for
English are listening and reading (receptive), speaking and writing (expressive). For ASL,
signing, fingerspelling and touching are expressive forms, while viewing and feeling in the
case of deafblind signers represents receptive skills. ASL uses visual and gestural modalities,
which have a supporting role in conveying meaning. For deafblind signers, the Pro-tactile
modality embeds ASL and tactile codes to communicate space and context.
Language can be expressed or received via different modes in the expressive or receptive
forms. The combinations include unimodal bilingual, bimodal bilingual, unimodal monolingual,
and bimodal monolingual. Some examples of the different types are as follows:
Unimodal bilingual: one form of expression/reception and two languages
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Hearing bilingual who speaks/hears two languages (e.g., English and French)
Deaf bilingual who signs/sees two sign languages (ASL and LSF)
Bimodal bilingual: two forms of expression and two languages
Hearing child of Deaf adults who can sign and speak
A deaf person who can sign ASL and write English
A deaf person who can sign ASL and use cued English
A hearing person who can speak one language and write another
Unimodal monolingual: one form of expression/reception and one language
A hearing person who can speak English but not write it
A deaf person who signs ASL but does not write English
Bimodal monolingual: two forms of expression/reception and one language
A deaf person who can cue English and speaks but does not sign ASL
An oral deaf person who can speak and write English
A hearing person who speaks and writes English
Some modalities cannot occur simultaneously but can be done sequentially. Signing and
speaking simultaneously is often attempted, but the interference of the two languages results
in cognitive overload and one or both languages is not intact during the process, which makes
simultaneous use problematic for both expressive accuracy and receptive comprehension
(Marmor & Petitto, 1979; Tevenal & Villanueva, 2009). Speaking in ASL can occur where the
influence of ASL grammar is shown in spoken English. An example would be “Pah, made it!”
This is not demonstrative of a poorly spoken or written example, but rather a translanguaging
technique, a social phenomenon where a language becomes the preferred target (García &
Wei, 2014).
Historical Overview of Bimodalism
Bimodalism is a challenging area within Deaf education. For centuries society has focused on
reaching auditory access and using spoken language. Those who benefit from auditory access
may practice speaking and listening to spoken language. However, the push to prioritize
auditory training versus enhancing visual engagement presupposes ideological views about
language in instruction. The Deaf community argues for visual modality as a guarantee for full
access in both ASL and in English. By eliminating any auditory perceptual ambiguities, the
traditional bilingual-bicultural deaf education makes the language policy clear. ASL is the
language of instruction and English is learned through printed English. Reading and writing
are not only necessary for communicating with hearing people, but also for attaining
academic success and lifelong learning.
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Student/Teacher Implications
The overwhelming rise of cochlear implants in the United States and the high variability in
language perception and production outcomes may require a careful analysis of their
language proficiencies (Geers et al., 2009). Hearing teachers will automatically lean toward
using, both the visual modality of sign and the auditory/aural language simultaneously,
without full consideration of what happens to language input. This “advantage” may seem to
be a language compromise when in fact language role models are jeopardized. The mixed
outcomes of simultaneous communication (SimCom) and its impact on deaf children’s
academic achievements have not yet been fully investigated, although the system has been
questioned (see Johnson et al., 1989). The method has raised concerns about pure language
models (Marmor & Pettito, 1979; Singleton et al., 1998; Tevenal & Villanueva, 2009). Johnson
et al. (1989) suggested that SimCom is more accurately described as sign-supported speech,
with the most complete model usually presented through the auditory mode.
Deaf Communities Contribute to Equitable Practices
This section describes how deaf people can gain Deaf voices in the educational enterprise to
strengthen the dialogue between reality in the classroom and the academic expectations for
deaf children.
Expansion of Deaf Scholarship and Collaboration in Educational and Linguistic
Research
In Evidence-Based Practice in Educating Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students, Spencer and
Marschark (2010) stipulated there is a lack of research evidence to justify bicultural,
bilingual, and bimodal education. While this may be true, the question of what constitutes
ideal and justifiable research remains. Generally speaking, the representation of the results is
primarily from a hearing viewpoint. This is not to undermine the solid research questions and
findings. One critical aspect, which may be in part a factor in the collection of data on
bilingual-bicultural programs, is the focus on quantitative research without the incorporation
of qualitative research. The nature of the research requires Deaf representation for
authenticity and validity (Singleton et al., 2014). Spencer and Marschark (2010) argue that
deaf people tend to project opinions, beliefs, and values that are not research based. Although
this may be true for some, the d/Deaf community does not feel validated as contributors to
research, nor do they have a voice or place to conduct qualified research. Frustration about
misrepresentation leads to fear and feelings of rejection toward involvement in research
projects. The scarcity of d/Deaf scholars contributes to this challenge (see Andrews et al.,
2015).
Ethical practices within research that involve Deaf scholars and the Deaf community in the
process will benefit the larger scope of all research (Singleton et al., 2014). Collaboration
among hearing and d/Deaf scholars will strengthen the overall research design. Only by
investigating the community’s concerns, beliefs, and values productively can their fears be
minimized. As Robinson and Henner (2017), both Deaf scholars stated,
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embracing deaf epistemology means the inclusion of deaf people in research and
policy making, acknowledging deaf people’s epistemic authority, producing theories
treating deafness as a gain rather than an impairment, rendering gain and deaf
people’s participation in society visible, and producing knowledge that benefits deaf
people. Deaf epistemology provides the opportunity to generate new questions,
theories, and methods in scientific and academic inquiry while contributing to
emancipatory movements for deaf people. (p. 3)
Deaf scholars are reclaiming the academic discourse within d/Deaf communities. Their lived
experiences are a major contribution to the construction of culturally and linguistic relevant
contexts for deaf children. In academia, the Deaf need to be given the opportunity to make
decisions in research, hiring, curriculum design, teacher preparation, supervision, and
instruction.
Solid research involving deaf individuals requires language sensitivity and is time-consuming.
In general, researchers do not use appropriate ASL measures to determine the language level
of ASL. Among many studies, one study by Geers et al. (2017), used hearing parents’ biased
assessments of their children’s signing abilities (baby signs, signed English, ASL) as a reliable
language assessment. These language assessments were skewed and scientifically invalid.
The interpretation of these skewed results misleads readers to assume that sign language
exposure is detrimental to a child’s language development. When researchers conduct
language measures on deaf children, it is ethically mandatory to provide criterion-based ASL
assessments. Professional conduct requires appropriate assessments.
Researchers evaluate their research methods to carefully distinguish between testing
students for their content knowledge versus their language abilities. Because Deaf students
are often diagnosed from an English-based standard without consideration of their ASL
abilities, their overall results are lower than reality. Just as for English language learners,
assessment materials need to be screened for readability challenges. Universal design
practices should be reinforced to eliminate misdiagnoses.
Investigation of Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Practices
Cross-linguistic studies in deaf education involve the interaction between languages (ASL and
English), modalities (sign, spoken), and print (alphabetic, syllabic, or morphosyllabic). These
interactions are enmeshed within cross-cultural practices that involve hearing-based
interactions and educational beliefs that are deeply ingrained within the larger society and
the minority-based Deaf cultural lifestyles. An example would be the importance of singing to
help young toddlers learn rhyming patterns. Deaf children use sign rhymes using ASL
phonology, facial expressions, and movement (Byrne, 2013). Many educational practices are
driven from either a hearing-centric or Deaf-centric perspective.
Due to cross-linguistic and cross-cultural differences, debates continue to arise with the
expected reading instruction strategies. The common belief that one has to hear language to
read language is not always true. The evidence of correlations between ASL competency and
reading proficiency raises questions about how reading instruction is taught. The
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1.
ramifications of the correlations require a reframing of mapping strategies. Hoffmeister and
Caldwell-Harris (2014) presented the associative theory in reading as an alternative way to
make sense of print that is not based on the spoken language.
The mapping strategies for reading are still being investigated. It is believed that reading is
about decoding print and sounding out letters to identify words and develop reading fluency.
The letter-to-sound representations vary greatly within alphabetic writing systems. The
mapping process for English is far more complicated than it is for Spanish or Croatian, for
example (Share, 2008).
Findings show that deaf readers of deaf parents may bypass phonology and rely on
orthographic processing to read. Much of what is embedded within reading instruction in the
classroom for the deaf is the tendency to rely on the traditional reading process. This process
is deeply ingrained in alphabetic languages, particularly in English, the “lingua franca'' of the
world. Not all languages follow the alphabetic principle, revealing the alternative ways of
language mapping. Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, is a syllabic written system where
syllables are decoded and not phonemes (Stavans, 2015). Chinese, however, is a
morphosyllabic script where each syllable has meaning. The Chinese written system can be
the same throughout the country, but how it is read differs greatly according to the dialect of
the region (Wang & Yang, 2008). Reading research on non alphabetic languages invites
researchers to step back and investigate the various mapping strategies that encompass
reading acquisition. How the script is mapped to the spoken language varies from language to
language, from one society to another, which in turn influences the geographical distribution
of language use from region to region (Perfetti & Dunlap, 2008).
It is also important to investigate the various mappings from sign language to print.
Fingerspelling is the common orthographic mapping strategy in the United States.
Fingerspelling links words with the written print and is used in chaining techniques to
associate the sign and the word (Humphries & Macdougall, 1999).
Final Recommendations for Equitable and Outstanding Deaf Teaching Practices
Hearing educators have had years of experience with testing, analyzing, and constructing
theory to practice. Historically, the involvement of Deaf teachers was critical in the
development of deaf education (Arnaud, 2015; Baynton, 1996). After the Milan conference in
1880, which banned sign language from the classroom, deaf teachers were eliminated
(Baynton, 1996). The number of Deaf teachers has remained small, due in part to biased
teacher certification testing (Scheetz & Martin, 2006). For Deaf educators to lead by example
in this pivotal process requires expertise. Expertise comes with experience and practice.
Experience and practice comes with guidance and modeling. The following summarizes some
of the challenges of incorporating equitable and outstanding Deaf teaching practices within
higher education:
Compilation of bilingual strategies used by both hearing and Deaf teachers.
Researchers cannot carefully investigate the bilingual strategies used by Deaf and
hearing teachers until both ASL and English languages are valued by educational
institutions. Several bilingual strategies unique to ASL are centered on the Deaf child
(ASL rhyming, ASL sign wall, ASL storytelling) and produce Deaf knowledge that
parallels hearing practices in cognitive development.
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2.
3.
4.
Equitable assessments are key to determining success. The Universal Design for
learning (UDL) team, a team of educators, practitioners and curriculum designers who
create an accessible, diverse, flexible and equitable curriculum for all students to
engage in learning, need to pay attention to the stumbling blocks in deaf students’
learning, where content knowledge information is not provided in sign language. Deaf
children struggle with English as their second language, and when they are taught
content knowledge in ASL, to be evaluated in English and not in ASL will affect their
overall scores. Fair assessments in both English and ASL eliminate any doubts with
regards to whether content knowledge or language knowledge is at stake.
Accountability and sustainability of ASL assessments and standards. ASL Standards and
Benchmarks have been distributed by Gallaudet University (2021). The standards are
disseminated throughout teacher training programs, schools, and professional
agencies. To qualify the effectiveness of the standards, ASL assessment teams must be
formed to evaluate tests in ASL, not just in the language of ASL assessments but also in
specific content areas. Providing the assessments in ASL tests not only the knowledge
of the language but also the content of the discipline.
Teachers, staff, and parents must possess higher ASL proficiency. Teacher training
programs must give opportunities for teachers to adequately deliver conceptual
translations into ASL as opposed to word \-for-word English translation. Teachers are
not licensed interpreters, but they should be fluent in the language as well as familiar
with sign linguistics to culturally and conceptually translate equal amounts of
information into another language accurately. This will only happen if they are
immersed in the Deaf community. Parents need to educate themselves about the
benefits of using sign language on their child’s cognitive development as soon as they
discover their child is deaf. Medical professionals have an obligation to disseminate
accurate information about language acquisition and bilingualism and warn parents of
the dangers of language deprivation (Hall, 2017; Hall et al., 2017), which can inhibit a
deaf child’s visual cognition.
Conclusion
A deaf individual cannot be forced to “choose” a community, and access to a visually based
community cannot be withheld from a deaf child. Recognition of both communities as being
part of a Deaf child’s life is unavoidable. Educators and parents are responsible for providing
a healthy learning environment that meets the cognitive and linguistic needs of deaf students.
As noted in an African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child. Similarly, in the case of Deaf
education, it takes the Deaf community to help raise a Deaf child within a bilingual world. By
including the Deaf community in the process of reclaiming language and culture within deaf
classrooms and involving them in educational research, language assessments, and bilingual
curriculum design, we can begin to address what has been lacking in Deaf education.
Deaf education is the embodiment of Deaf epistemologies. Neglecting to include the voices of
the Deaf community is like pulling away the foundation of a building. No one knows the
educational system better than deaf people themselves, who have navigated through the
language wars, instructional practices, educational placements, and curriculum
implementations. By acknowledging the biological phenomenon of a visual world navigated by
Deaf individuals, the natural socialization of Deaf communities is a result of a shared
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experience. A deaf individual deserves to feel safe and grow in a healthy ecosystem. By
embracing deaf practices in higher education, the pool of Deaf knowledge, skills, and
resources is channeled to language planning, curriculum design, and teacher practices.
Recognizing the cultural biases in teacher preparation, instruction, curriculum, and role
models is the first step in deconstructing this preparation. Nothing about us without us!
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