|Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies
An Unintended Consequence of IDEA:
American Sign Language, the Deaf Community,
and Deaf Culture into Mainstream Education
Russell S. Rosen, Ph.D.
One goal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the integration of students who are deaf and hard of hearing into American society. Its original programmatic thrust, stated in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142), is the fostering of speech and hearing skills and the placement of deaf and hard of hearing students in regular classrooms with hearing students. However, an analysis of historical and educational documents shows that IDEA unintentionally created the process for the inclusion of the language, community, and culture of signing deaf and hard of hearing students into the American education system. As IDEA integrates signing deaf and hard of hearing students into the American education system, American Sign Language (ASL) and the American Deaf community and culture are also mainstreamed into the system.
Keywords: IDEA, placement of deaf and hard of hearing students, American Sign Language in schools, mainstreaming Deaf culture
Since 1975, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142), set forth as one of its goals the integration of individuals with deafness into American society. The law views the integration effort as best carried out within general education classes with the aid of special education and related services personnel. Youth identified as deaf or hard of hearing (D/HH), defined originally in PL 94-142 as a hearing impairment that prevents youth from "processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, which adversely affects educational performance," follow an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that includes schedules, coursework, and benchmarks. D/HH students are placed in school settings considered to be the least restrictive environment (LRE); that is, in general education schools and classrooms near their places of residence. The placement of D/HH students in general education classrooms is intended to provide an impetus for these students to acquire the hearing and speaking communication skills needed for interaction with hearing peers–a precursor to their full integration into American society. Consequently, there has been increased placement of D/HH students in general education classrooms with hearing peers since the inception of IDEA. For example, 46% of D/HH students attended local general education schools in 1977-1978 in contrast to 61% by 1987-88, 88% by 1999-2000 and 91% by 2002-2003 (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2004).
However, an unintended consequence of IDEA has occurred. After 30 years of institutionalizing the practice of mainstreaming, D/HH students, particularly those who use sign language, have not become "hearing"–that is, only speaking and hearing spoken English language without the use of sign language. Instead, IDEA became a battleground upon which educators fought over the definition, evaluation, instruction, and placement of D/HH students, particularly in regard to communication needs and language preferences for students who do use sign language. Students with deafness have been re-theorized and their needs re-politicized. Out of these battles is a reconceptualization of deafness for IDEA purposes and practices. This reconceptualization has inadvertently, but fortuitously, led to a proliferation of classes and programs in American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf community and culture in American public schools. Increasingly, hearing students in public schools have taken up interest in the language, community and culture of signing D/HH people. As a result, ASL and Deaf community and culture have become mainstreamed into general education classrooms. This phenomenon stands in contrast to the original intent of IDEA. What has wrought this change?
Through an examination of educational and historical documents, I trace the history of mainstreaming ASL and Deaf community and culture into American education since the inception of PL 94-142. Sources utilized in this study include the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public communications and memorandum from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)–an office of the federal cabinet-level US Department of Education, results of a national survey conducted by the author on public high schools that offer ASL programs and classes for foreign language credit, and publications written by participants on the formation of ASL programs and classes in public high schools. This study does not focus on the history of mainstreaming D/HH students in American public schools; rather it examines the process through which the presence of signing D/HH students in American public schools forced legislators to revise IDEA, moving from their original "audist" programming to "language preference" programs that introduced the language and culture of the American Deaf community into public schools.
The impetus for mainstreaming ASL and Deaf community and culture into American schools was the continuing communication and languages barriers experienced by signing D/HH  students in general education classrooms. Study after study demonstrated lack of opportunities for signing D/HH students to interact with their hearing teachers and peers in public schools (Foster, 1989; Gaustad & Kluwin, 1992; Stinson & Liu, 1999). Schools did not provide sufficient mechanisms for the development of communication and socialization skills to enable interactions among signing D/HH and hearing students in public schools (Gaustad & Kluwin, 1992; Stinson & Kluwin, 1996; Stinson & Liu, 1999; Antia, Stinson & Gaustad, 2002). Mere physical proximity among these students did not necessarily create dialogues (Foster, 1989; Gaustad & Kluwin, 1992; Stinson & Liu, 1999; Antia, Stinson & Gaustad, 2002). In many cases, students and teachers resorted to the use of sign language interpreters who served as "go-betweens" (Charlson, Strong, & Gold, 1992; Gaustad & Kluwin, 1992; Stinson & Kluwin, 1996; Stinson & Liu, 1999). In addition, communication among hearing and D/HH students was hampered by insensitivity and a lack of mutual understanding of one another (Foster, 1989; Lee & Anita, 1992; Kiger, 1997; Nash, 2000; van Gurp, 2001; Antia, Stinson & Gaustad, 2002). Problems in creating dialogues among these groups resulted mainly from a lack of knowledge about deafness and communication issues on the part of hearing teachers and students. In short, public schools were not meeting the communication needs of the signing D/HH students.
Negative Responses to IDEA
The communication situation of signing D/HH students in public education classrooms soon drew calls from advocates and researchers and the American Deaf community for the use of sign language in public education classrooms. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), a leading American advocacy organization of D/HH individuals, prepared position papers calling for more sign language interpreters and instruction in general education classrooms. Several researchers called for the teaching of sign language to hearing students so they would be able to communicate with their signing D/HH classmates (Sinston & Liu, 1999; Kluwin, Stinson & Colarossi, 2002). Others called for co-enrollment of signing D/HH and hearing students with team teachers, one from general education and the other from deaf education well versed in sign language. A few schools now offer co-enrollment which does promote a higher frequency of deaf-hearing interactions (Kreimeyer, et al., 2000).
Countering the Negative Impact of IDEA
The calls for changes in IDEA regulations impacted the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Congress. In the late 1980s, NAD representatives held several meetings with Dr. Robert Davila, then the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), regarding IDEA regulations on diagnosis, evaluation, and placement. In 1988, Assistant Secretary Davila wrote and sent to state education departments a Memorandum of Understanding regarding D/HH students. This document stated that the evaluation and placement decisions and IEP planning must take into account the communication needs of D/HH students in mainstreamed settings. It also urged the U.S. Congress to take action on the disappointing educational results of D/HH students in mainstreamed settings (U.S. Department of Education, 1992).
Aware of the disappointing results for signing D/HH students in integrated settings, Congress commissioned a study of deaf education in the U.S. during the mid-1980s. Led by Dr. Frank Bowe, the Commission on the Education of the Deaf conducted hearings, analyzed studies, and prepared a report entitled Toward Equality: Education of the Deaf in 1988 that offered 51 recommendations. For example, it was recommended that schools, both schools for the deaf and the general education schools, be sensitive to the communication needs and practices of D/HH students in classrooms as well as in the evaluation, identification, IEP planning, and placement of D/HH students in school systems. ASL was recommended to be one of the means of communication in classrooms. Still another recommendation proposed that schools for the deaf utilize a bicultural and bilingual approach in the education of D/HH students (Commission on the Education of the Deaf, 1988).
"Official" Recognition of ASL
Based on the Commission's recommendations, Congress made changes in IDEA in the late 1990s. Within the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA, Congress inserted recognition of diverse communication needs and language preferences of D/HH students, deleted any reference within the definition of deafness to the role of speech and hearing difficulties in receiving linguistic information, redefined deafness to include only students who need special education and related services, and required that the IEP team take into account the various communication needs and language preferences of D/HH students in evaluation and placement decisions. Specifically, Section 614 in Part B of IDEA 1997 added that the IEP team should in the case of a child who is deaf or hard of hearing, consider
Congress inserted ASL as one of the languages used by D/HH students for the first time in the 1999 reauthorization of IDEA (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). The 1999 IDEA regulations included sign language as one of the primary languages of D/HH students and their preferred mode of communication. In section 300.19 of the 1999 IDEA (34 C.F.R. 300.19), native language for individuals with deafness is defined to include "the mode of communication...normally used by the individual (such as sign language)." Section 300.352 of IDEA 1999 stipulated that tests and other evaluation materials must be provided and administered in the child's native language, including sign language (34 C.F.R. 300.352(a)(1), 1999). Section 346(c) stipulated that the IEP must include consideration of the communication needs and language preferences of D/HH students, and placement must be made with support services that utilize the child's native language or preferred mode of communication, such as ASL.
In addition, Part B of the 1997 and 1999 reauthorizations of IDEA stipulate that evaluation and placement may not be based on category and severity of disability, configuration of delivery system, availability of educational and related services, availability of space, or administrative convenience (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). Importantly, the reauthorizations of IDEA in 1997 and 1999 made it difficult for public schools to ignore sign language, including ASL, as a primary language and preferred mode of communication for students who are D/HH.
Increased Use of ASL in General Education
This shift in diagnosis, evaluation, and placement regulations in IDEA altered classroom practices with signing D/HH students. Since the passage of the 1999 IDEA, more sign language interpreters have been employed in general education classrooms. There is an increase of D/HH students in mainstreamed settings with sign interpreters. The rate of sign language interpreters in integrated settings has increased from 22.1% in 1999-2000 to 22.9% in 2001-2002 and 23.4% in 2002-2003 (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2004). This suggests that the mainstreaming of D/HH students is continuing with more sign language interpreters.
The presence of signing D/HH students with their sign language interpreters in general education classrooms has generated interest among hearing students and teachers in the lives, experiences, language, community and culture of the signing D/HH students. Hearing students have increasingly requested courses in ASL and American Deaf community and culture, so that they can learn how to communicate with the D/HH students. As a result, ASL is accepted as one of the languages used in general education schools. The acceptance of ASL, coupled with the presence of signing D/HH students in general education classrooms, has set into motion the creation of courses and programs in ASL as a foreign language in public schools.
ASL as a Foreign Language
In order for schools to offer ASL courses (including information on Deaf community and culture) for foreign language credit, state legislatures and state education departments must provide official approval. Since the 1980s, members from the Deaf community have initiated the process for securing approval from state legislatures and state education departments. However, the process varied across the nation. In some states, the NAD, in collaboration with the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA), a leading American organization of teachers of ASL, lobbied with state education departments and state legislatures and secured approval. In New York, a consortium of Empire State Association of the Deaf, a state chapter of the NAD, several representatives from the state chapter of ASLTA and other community leaders met with members of the state legislature, received approval, drew up curriculum and assessment materials, and devised examinations for teacher certification and student diplomas. In other states, the process was carried out by consortiums of community members and faculty from colleges and universities. In California, individual members of the Deaf community, such as Selover (1988), the California Association of the Deaf, institutions such as California State University at Northridge and community organizations met, lobbied, and received recognition from the state legislature and prepared curriculum and assessment guidelines for teacher certifications and student degrees. Consortiums of community organizations and leaders in Maryland, Nevada (Loux, 1996), Texas and Washington underwent similar processes. In still other states, the process began at the political level. In Virginia, for example, a memorandum written in 1988 by a superintendent led to the passage of a resolution recognizing ASL as a foreign language in the state assembly in 1998 (Wallinger, 2000; Pfeffier, 2003). As of May, 2005, 35 out of 50 states in the U.S. formally recognize ASL as a foreign language its students can take for credit to meet the foreign language requirement for graduation at degree-granting educational institutions; however, the establishment of ASL classes and programs are not dependent on state education departments' recognition of ASL as a foreign language (Rosen, 2005).
The Deaf community's investment in ensuring recognition of ASL and Deaf community and culture at state government level has filtered down to neighborhood schools, particularly public high schools. In order to establish programs and courses in ASL as a foreign language in public high schools, it was necessary for principals, foreign language departments and school districts to provide support. Results from a national survey on ASL programs and classes in public high schools show variations across states and locales in the process for establishing ASL programs and classes (Rosen, 2005). Nationally, the process began with teachers' availability, students' demands, principals' approval, and then with support from parents, school districts, and the community. However, states varied in the process. Some states, such as Arizona, began with community and school districts' input, students' demands and parents' requests, and then teachers' availability, and ended with principals' support. Other states, such as Illinois, began with the request by parents and principals, and then to teachers' availability, students' demands and community's support, and ended with the approval from school districts (Rosen, 2005).
Growth of Classes in ASL: A National Survey
Results from a national survey conducted by the author (Rosen, 2005) indicate that efforts by members of the Deaf community, students and their parents, and support from principals and school districts resulted in the establishment of ASL as a foreign language in American public high schools. The number of high schools nationwide that offer ASL as a foreign language is growing exponentially. In 1992, 50 public high schools nationwide offered classes in ASL as a foreign language. The number grew in 1997 to 286 public high schools nationwide that offered classes in ASL as a foreign language, 456 in 2000, 605 in 2002, and 701 in 2004. The number of high schools with ASL classes grew 1,248% from 1992 to 2004, and 54% from 2000 to 2004. Thus, ASL has been increasingly given foreign language status in public high schools. About 98 percent of high schools granted foreign language credit for ASL for 2004-2005, compared to 97 percent in 2002-2003. This is testament to the recognition of ASL and Deaf community and culture within public high schools.
Schools drew teachers to teach ASL (as well as Deaf community and culture) largely from their deafness-related programs and services. A majority of teachers of ASL were trained either in deaf education, ASL and Deaf Studies, or sign language interpreting. Fifty-seven percent of the teachers of ASL nationwide originally hailed from deaf education, ASL Programs, Deaf Studies Programs, Interpreter Training Programs and special education. The rest came from a scattering of fields such as elementary education and non-educational fields. This fact suggests that all of the teachers, students, curriculum, instruction, programs, and classes in ASL as a foreign language began as offshoots of deafness-related programs. Thus, such deafness-related programs provided the impetus for ASL-as-a-foreign-language space in public high schools.
There have been increases in the number of ASL teachers, classes offered and student enrollments over the years. In 2002-2003, the number of teachers measured in FTE terms (full-time equivalency)–a more accurate indicator of the employment situation of teachers than head counts–was 593. The number of FTE teachers grew to 648 in 2003-2004 and 723 in 2004-2005. This represents an increase of 22% from 2002-2003 to 2004-2005. In the state of New York, the number of FTE teachers grew from 78 in 2002-2003 to 83 in 2004-2005–an increase of 6%. There is also an increase in the number of ASL classes. There were 2,857 classes offered in 2002-2003, 3,251 in 2003-2004 and 4,009 in 2004-2005. This represents a 40% increase in the number of classes offered between 2002 and 2005. Moreover, the number of students enrolled in ASL classes in public high schools has also risen exponentially. 56,783 high school students enrolled in ASL classes in the school year of 2002-2003, 65,196 in 2003-2004, and 72,984 in 2004-2005. This represents an increase of 29% from 2002 to 2005.
With the growth of ASL classes and the number of students taking ASL for foreign language credit, there are increased opportunities for students with disabilities to interact with able-bodied students in ASL classes. ASL courses attract a relatively high percentage of students who receive special education services at their schools, the most prominent being students with deafness, learning disabilities and physical disabilities. In the 2004-2005 school year, about 13% of students nationwide who enrolled into the classes were reported to be special education students while 87 percent were general education hearing students. In the state of New York, 15% of special education students took ASL for foreign language credit. Adjacent states also have relatively high incidence of special education students in ASL classes: New Jersey reported 16% of students in ASL who were special education students and Connecticut reported 25%.
In the survey questionnaire, teachers remarked that D/HH and hearing students interact on a daily basis as they learn to converse with each other in ASL. Half of the schools surveyed had ASL Clubs. Teachers indicated that ASL Clubs offered a myriad of activities for socializing between signing D/HH and hearing students within and outside of school buildings, e.g., student visits to schools for the deaf, participation in local and national Deaf community activities, the invitation of D/HH guest speakers at the schools, and the establishment of "pen-pal" programs where hearing students in ASL classes communicate with their D/HH counterparts from schools for the deaf through the use of IM (instant messaging) and email. In other words, ASL classes and clubs in public high schools seem to be the places where signing D/HH and hearing students interact on a daily basis.
In spite of the original intentions of IDEA to "normalize" D/HH students to become more like their hearing peers, there has been considerable growth in the number of students, teachers, and classes in ASL as a foreign language (including Deaf culture and community) since 2000. As a result of largely "audist" practices under IDEA, signing D/HH students in general education classrooms experienced language and communication problems. Thus, IDEA became a breeding ground for ideological struggles between political and educational forces–in regard to definitions, evaluation, instruction, and placements of D/HH students with specific communication needs and language preferences. The result is that deafness has been reconceptualized for educational purposes. The original "audist" practices mandated by PL 94-142 in 1975 were revised in the 1997 and 1999 reauthorizations of IDEA to include different "language preferences" of D/HH students and to incorporate sign language as one of their primary instructional languages.
The recognition of sign language in educational practice generated needs and interests for ASL and Deaf community and culture in schools. Consequently, signing D/HH students have become increasingly mainstreamed with sign language interpreters. Their presence has created interest among some general education personnel and students in the language, community, and culture of D/HH people. Because of the growth of interest in school systems among hearing individuals in learning about and participating in the Deaf community, opportunities and spaces have been created for courses in ASL and Deaf community and culture. State education departments and legislatures have passed bills recognizing ASL as a language for use in schools and for foreign language degree credit. Schools have created ASL courses and programs and recruited teachers largely from deafness-related programs within their buildings to teach ASL and Deaf community and culture. It is this space in classrooms created by IDEA that has impacted not only D/HH students but also hearing students and the course of secondary education in general.
While IDEA provides D/HH students with opportunities to participate with hearing peers in the public education system, IDEA also provides space in classrooms that generate mechanisms for hearing students to take up interest in ASL and the Deaf community and culture. In time, as IDEA continues to foster the mainstreaming of signing D/HH students into the American education system, ASL and the American Deaf community and culture may become commonplace elements of educational practice.
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1 There is a diversity of communication preferences among deaf and hard of hearing students in mainstreamed settings. The languages used have ranged from speech and Cued Speech, to Manually Coded English and ASL. For the rest of the article, the "signing D/HH students" refers to a subset of the deaf and hard of hearing student population who predominately use ASL.
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