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.

"I don't want to be negative about CSDB," says Moers. "We cherish and value the people there, and I cherish my time there. But we want to teach children that no one is above them or below them. At CSDB, we were below the hearing."

Janice Brencick, a hearing person who serves on the proposed school's steering committee, agrees. "The deaf are always underneath the hearing," she says. "In our school, deaf adults would be running the program."

Right now, though, the deaf have few people in authority who understand them. Moers notes that there is not one deaf administrator in state government, not even in special education or at CSDB--with the exception of the school's athletic director.

It was that kind of inequity that sparked the so-called Gallaudet Revolution of 1988, when students demonstrated after the trustees chose a hearing person as the school's president. The protest, which drew national attention, worked: A deaf candidate who'd previously been passed over was named president.

Such a revolution hasn't occurred in Colorado. Although the magnet school proposal drew letters of recommendation from college professors, author Lane, interpreters for the deaf and the Deaf Organizations of Colorado, conspicuous in their absence were any supportive letters from the people charged with teaching the deaf--the special-ed establishment and CSDB officials.

This spring the charter proposal was turned down by the Denver, Cherry Creek and Jefferson County school districts, which all cited economic reasons for their denials (the Jeffco board passed a resolution supporting the school and ASL--in theory). In April the Colorado Board of Education rejected an appeal from the school's supporters; Moers is scheduled to meet with state and local special-ed officials later this month to discuss the proposal.

Lane says a negative reaction is to be expected, at least from many in the special-ed establishment. "Their interest is to promote the need for their profession," he notes. "It wouldn't be in their interest to support ASL. If you're a teacher and you don't know ASL, you become the handicapped one--and that's unthinkable. They're doing what any other profession would do."

Among the skeptics is Pat Hall, manager of special education for Denver Public Schools. "Intellectually, I can understand where they're coming from," says Hall, who does not know ASL. "But one of my major concerns is that in order to read English, you have to learn English."

DPS offers several options to its deaf students, she adds, but ASL is not one of them. John Leslie, the district's executive director of student services, says the presence of ASL in the magnet-school proposal "was one of the reasons we didn't think it was appropriate."

According to Leslie and Hall, special-ed directors are considering making a proposal of their own: to establish a CSDB satellite in the Denver area.

"That could be a possibility as long as it isn't like CSDB and is controlled by the deaf," says the Denver mother. "Let's not do something we're already doing. Let's do something better."

She notes that hearing educators of the "old school" hang on to low expectations for deaf students. "They say to parents, `This is as much as you can expect, because they're deaf,'" she says. "But deaf teachers have high expectations. That's another reason the deaf community should be given a chance to run this school."

The notion of a CSDB satellite doesn't square with Moers, either. "What we are especially concerned about is autonomy," he says. "We want our school to be self-governed. The other things we value are the Montessori style, that the school provide a signing environment and that the school hire people proficient in ASL and knowledgeable about deafness. On these grounds we are not willing to bend."

Despite the apparent impasse, barriers to ASL may be cracking. A 1990 "plan for delivery of educational services" to the deaf and blind, drawn up by state education officials, recommended that ASL be offered "as a `foreign' language throughout Colorado." State legislators recently passed a resolution indicating their support for recognition of ASL as a language. And this year, for the first time, CSDB officials will evaluate the ASL proficiency of their faculty members and of interpreters for the deaf throughout the state. Lane sees this as "a tremendous step forward."

And it gives Cliff Moers hope. When he lived at CSDB, even the dorm counselors didn't know


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >