For more than two centuries schools for the Deaf were much more than places for formal learning. The staff and students were often each other’s family. All woven together by common experiences and a visual language that was as much a part of their culture as any other would be. Deaf schools were an identity for the students. A source of pride.
When I talk with my Deaf friends they often refer to their Deaf School as their “home”. Mainly because their families were not fluent in ASL or had zero knowledge. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t love their families, but thought of their childhood as having two families.
For several years I worked as a School Psychologist at the Delaware School for the Deaf. I have some of my fondest memories in my profession with those kids! Evaluating and counseling a child in sign language was a breeze for me. There was no interpreter needed to complete the assessment. Just the student, my testing kits and myself. I went to their plays, ate dinner with them in the dorms and waved hello and goodbye every Monday and Friday as the buses rolled to and from school. Years later I try to keep up all those I knew via the school website and social media links. When I see the roster of names I smiles. You see, many of the teachers and para – professionals are still there – nearly 25 years later . And, the new names are often those of former students! The Deaf School family often stays united, it would seem.
Yet, with our changing times, where public schools are now “inclusive” and ADA and educational laws necessitate the equal access and availability of interpreters, the Deaf schools are now seeing a huge decline and in some cases are even closing. Last year I was at the North Dakota School for the Deaf. A wonderful older campus with trees lining up between the majestic brick buildings. I was so happy to have stumbled upon the school during a consulting trip. Once on campus, I rushed to a staff member and inquired as to how many students were in residence? The response: EIGHT!
I thought my eyes were deceiving me, so I signed the query again. Yep, eight students comprised the entire student body. I counted the buildings. It literally was one student per building. I was not surprised to see that this school closed or at least was rumored to have been closing.
Related: List of schools for the Deaf
The number of people who identify as either Deaf or Hard of Hearing (HOH) in the United States is substantial. In fact, more than one million people identify themselves as having a significant hearing loss according to a fairly recent data study reported by Gallaudet University. However, technology is making the Deaf community topsy turvy! The advent of the cochlear implant has been a game changer. Now surgery can be performed that increases the likelihood of hearing and speech. Although not always successful ( I have known several cases that were #EpicFails), the Cochlear Implant (CI) is considered “standard procedure” when hearing parents give birth to a deaf baby.
Side note: We can debate the CI for hours and hours, but for now I will leave it for another day. I am “on the fence” – but can fall off at any time!
It is noteworthy that many states continue to have vibrant Deaf schools – such as California, Alabama and Oklahoma. I have been to several of these schools and felt at home each time! That is one thing that is such a common thread among these schools – the desire to support each other. For example, when a Deaf school competes in a national championship alumni from many state schools are bound to show up! There is no substitute for the warm feeling of kinship that runs deep within the Deaf community.
In closing, I have often been a supporter of the Deaf School as it is to me a school of culture and not disability. I am pleased to see for some states the tradition continues. Yet, it saddens me to see that many once robust schools for the Deaf are now empty buildings being sold off to businesses or torn down. I just hope that the same is not true of the rich and fabulous Deaf culture that once was so defined on these campuses!