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School system serves deaf students poorly

Apr 07, 2007
Helen Henderson

Here’s a novel concept: What if kids who are deaf or hard of hearing were given a level playing field?

What if those who communicate with American Sign Language (ASL) never felt second-rate at school? What if they knew peers, professors and staff at Canadian colleges and universities would always respect their culture?

If education appeared less daunting, maybe the dropout rate would drop, whole new futures open up.

What if we stopped studying the issues and actually started doing something about them? (In the past 20 years there have been enough reports to paper half the country.)

Ontario’s Education Act recognizes ASL, along with English and French, as a valid language of instruction. But the necessary regulations to define its usage and availability have yet to materialize.

As Gary Malkowski, a special adviser to the president of the Canadian Hearing Society, points out, that means the province has no minimum requirements and no standards for hiring teachers fluent in ASL, which leaves way too many kids in limbo.

In a system predicated on what is effectively an inaccessible foreign language, Malkowski notes that most deaf students do not pass the standard Grade 10 literacy test. Not surprisingly, the Ontario Association of the Deaf and other advocacy groups want some answers.

Responding to questions in the Legislature on the status of ASL regulations, Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said in December: “We’re working with the school system as a whole to make sure that the professional development and the training is in place that will allow capacity in the system.

“We can pass a regulation, we can change a regulation, but if there is no capacity, if there are no teachers to deliver, if there is no way for students to get the service they need, then the regulation is meaningless. So we’re going to build capacity rather than make a paper decision.”

But Malkowski, a former MPP, says the regulations should be a priority. For almost 20 years, a series of reviews and reports have mapped out game plans, he says, but “no action has been implemented on the recommendations of these reports and voluntary measures have been proven to be ineffective.”

For those deaf, deafened or hard of hearing students who do manage to go on to college or university, the picture is also cloudy. Almost half drop out before completing their education, Canadian Hearing Society reports show. But a recent study by Douglas Auld, former head of the University of Guelph’s economics department and Belleville’s Loyalist College, offers some concrete suggestions for change.

Auld undertook the study on a voluntary basis at the behest of MPP Ernie Parsons, a long-time advocate for tearing down barriers. Parsons’ Prince Edward-Hastings riding includes Belleville’s Sir James Whitney Institute for Post Secondary Studies.

For decades, Sir James Whitney provided primary and secondary education for deaf students. But with increased integration in so-called regular classrooms, the need for its programs has decreased, leaving it with excess capacity. Auld believes it would be a good spot to implement a post-secondary transition program that would help deaf students succeed at college and university.

With a carefully crafted academic program and in-residence life skills counselling, he believes “the success rate for deaf, deafened and hard of hearing students would be enhanced significantly.” What’s more, he doesn’t believe it would break the bank.

While a “stand-alone” college or university for deaf students would an ideal learning institution, Auld doesn’t think there would be enough demand to create something like that at a “reasonable” cost.

A transition program at Sir James Whitney is not only doable, it should be a moral obligation for Ontario, he argues.

Well said.

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