The 'inclusion' debate: Schools for all, or separate but equal?

February 23, 1994|By Leah Hager Cohen

Next week, the House Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights will begin hearings on re-authorizing the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

A growing number of experts and parents claim that the act should be rewritten to make inclusion in regular schools mandatory for all disabled children. Here, two writers who have observed disabled students in mainstream classrooms recall their experiences.

An interpreter isn't enough

IT'S a few minutes before the class will start.

Everyone's fishing notebooks from knapsacks and sharpening pencils.

It's all "What did you put for the last answer on the algebra?" and "Tomorrow's the last day for yearbook money, right?" and "If we want to stay for the game, Toni says she can give us a ride."

All of the eleventh-graders are speaking or listening, directly or // indirectly.

Except for one student, sitting down front. She is neither speaking nor listening; she is not involved; she is deaf.

I am her sign-language interpreter. I stand at the front of the class, poised to begin signing whenever she looks at me, but she doesn't; she is resting her eyes on the sky outside.

When at last she does turn her face, it is not to see what her classmates are saying but to chat with me about her weekend, about the book I am reading, about her dog, my sweater, anything.

She is hungry for communication and chooses me -- an adult satellite paid to follow her through the school day -- rather than her peers, who do not speak her language.

Class begins. She pays attention for a while. Sometimes when the teacher asks a question, she signs a response, which I interpret into spoken English -- always a little late, just a few seconds after the other students.

Sometimes the students all talk at once; their voices overlap and I have to choose one thread to follow, or compress them all in a quick synopsis, inserting who said which thing to whom and in what tone of voice.

Sometimes I make a mistake and have to correct myself and then we both fall behind and I scramble, signing extra-fast to catch up.

Sometimes, when I am speaking for her, I don't understand something she has signed. I have to ask her to repeat it, and I can see her flush, both of us sensing the polite and condescending impatience of the teacher and the class.

Sometimes the teacher uses a roll-down map or an overhead projector, and all the students train their eyes on the visual information while listening to the teacher.

I move closer to the map or screen, trying to make my hands make sense of all the information. The girl looks at me, then at the visual display. The teacher talks on. By the time the student looks at me again, she has lost three sentences.

She looks at her notes and loses more sentences. Frustration flickers across her face, her eyes go blank and she gives up, returning her gaze to the sky.

I do not eat lunch with her, but I have seen her in the cafeteria at a long white table with other students. She is able, sort of, to participate in conversation, if someone makes a point of turning and speaking directly to her.

Because she has trouble lip reading and they have trouble understanding her speech, she often resorts to pen and paper. The students are patient. But conversation usually ricochets across the table too rapidly for her even to pretend comprehension, so she takes a bite of her sandwich.

She chews carefully, almost surreptitiously; she has been told that deaf people make funny noises when they eat.

More often, she doesn't go to the cafeteria at all. She spends her lunch period at the library, in woodshop, on the basketball court shooting hoops. She's a good athlete.

She runs with the cross-country team, but she doesn't participate in student government or school plays or the literary magazine or cheerleading. She prefers activities in which she can excel alone.

Her parents are proud that she attends a regular public school. They do not use sign language. On Mondays, she comes to school ravenous for conversation with me.

She signs gregariously before class and even during class, and I smile in a small way and sign back: Wait, wait, we'll talk about it later, the teacher's speaking now.

Her teachers ask me how I think she's doing. I tell them that I cannot say; as the interpreter, I'm not permitted to give an opinion.

I say, "Maybe you would like to ask her? I'd be glad to interpret if you'd like to ask her yourself." They do not take me up on it.

This girl could go to a federally-financed school for the deaf, where all the students can converse with each other, all the information is presented visually, teachers sign and deaf adults serve as role models, deaf kids lead the student government and star in the school play.

These schools prepare students for jobs and college. They also give the students access to the deaf community, which has its own language, folklore, traditions, social clubs, periodicals, athletic teams and political events.

The schools have always served as the cultural center of the deaf community. Yet proponents of inclusion would like to close them, claiming that it would liberate deaf people from the "discrimination" of separate schooling and give them equality.

All it would require are some sign-language interpreters to smooth out the differences, they say.

To many deaf people, this is at best maddeningly naive; at worst, it is chauvinistic. The history of deaf people is one of mandated assimilation: We can make you more like hearing people, we can make you more normal.

Proponents of inclusion should ask themselves why it looks so appealing. Is it the policy that will best serve deaf people?

Or is it simply a way to further that great American myth, the one we seem to need like oxygen, that says we're all created equal?

Leah Hager Cohen is author of "Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World."

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