Cliff Moers went to a boarding school in Colorado Springs, but in some ways it might as well have been on another planet: The teachers insisted on using one language while the students used another.

Now Moers is trying to start a charter school in the Denver area that would change the way deaf children are educated in this state. But judging from the reaction to his proposal, Moers still speaks a different language from that of most educators.

Moers and his allies want their Magnet School of the Deaf to be a showcase for American Sign Language (ASL), the system of visual signs used by the deaf for over a century despite its banishment from classrooms. "The way deaf children learn language is to see it happen," says Moers, coordinator of deaf and hard-of-hearing services at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Most teachers of the deaf do not know ASL, much less feature it in their classes. Instead, they rely on what's known as "signed English," a system invented only a few decades ago. The problem is that signed English--which isn't a language at all but merely signs placed in English word order--can be puzzling to people who have never heard English spoken. ASL, on the other hand, is a complete language with its own visual and spatial grammar, syntax and art forms.

Like a growing number of deaf people, Moers thinks of himself not as handicapped but as a member of a linguistic minority whose use of ASL has been suppressed.

"The deaf do not see themselves the way their teachers see them," says Boston professor Harlan Lane, a hearing person who wrote The Mask of Benevolence, a manifesto of deaf emancipation that has drawn national praise even outside the deaf community. "The world sees them as handicapped. The deaf don't."

Over a hundred years ago deaf people in this country were prohibited from becoming teachers, and ASL was banned from deaf classrooms on the theory that it interfered with deaf children's ability to learn English. Since then, several other systems have been tried. Some educators are "oralists," who insist on teaching deaf people to speak; that method, however, often fails with those who are deaf from birth (90 percent of all deaf people). Others use signed English. Still others practice "total communication," a combination of several methods.

None have worked particularly well. Studies show that otherwise bright high school graduates who are deaf read only as well as typical third-graders. The situation is "disgraceful," a federal commission determined in 1990.

"It's a waste of time and a waste of a life," says Moers, adding that the primary reason for the sad statistics is that deaf children have been denied ASL, their "natural language." Moers and other activists argue that deaf children, who learn ASL anyway on their own, would have a better chance of mastering English if their instructors also were fluent in ASL and could teach them English as a second language.

Instead, most deaf children are mainstreamed into regular schools and classrooms, where they're often isolated by language differences. "It's a beautiful philosophy of educating children together," says a Denver mother whose child has been deaf since birth. "But parents have been brainwashed into believing that mainstream programs will work. Parents want to keep their families together--I don't want to send my son away to school. That's why the magnet school makes sense.

"They're going to `lose' their child anyway. Their child's not going to hang out with hearing people. Instead of fighting it, you have to go with it, see it as an opportunity, as a way to become a bicultural family."

That's what the Magnet School of the Deaf proposes to do, using Montessori methods to teach ASL to young students and serving as a center for deaf culture for the entire community. (Exact statistics on the size of that group are hard to come by: The Center on Deafness estimates that 13,500 deaf people and 225,000 more who are labeled "hearing-impaired" live in Colorado; Moers estimates that as many as 20,000 deaf may live in the Denver area alone.) And the deaf want the school to be theirs--governed by a majority of deaf boardmembers and primarily using deaf teachers.

Only a handful of schools in the country operate that way, and only one, the Metro Deaf School in Minneapolis-St. Paul, started as a charter school.

Moers's fight to launch a school that emphasizes ASL has been a highly personal battle. Before graduating in 1986 from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world's only deaf college, he attended Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs. His bittersweet experience at what is still Colorado's only school for the deaf was typical of residential deaf schools, he says, at least during that era: confusing classrooms in which ASL was forbidden and joyous times outside class when deaf kids taught one another the language and exulted in finding others who understood what they wanted to communicate.

CSDB is a more enlightened place now, Moers and others acknowledge, but the magnet school's supporters want the deaf to start controlling their own destiny.

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