Most children learn how to read in a classroom with other students by sounding out letters. Storytime is a collective experience when kids can learn and interact together. Now imagine a child being segregated from that. Special needs and segregated spaces are century-old ways of oppressing those with disabilities. There are schools for the deaf and for the blind, for example, but decisions made by non-disabled people for the disabled people devalue the latter. When students are segregated, regular students see that as a norm and most likely will identify disabled individuals as people who should be segregated for the rest of their lives.
Why Segregation Is Harmful
Connection and community are at the heart of relationship building. Students that are isolated or put into spaces with other kids with similar disabilities say that disabled people can’t be part of mainstream society. Of course, there are situations where proper support is needed to educate a child with a certain disability, but creating an integrated classroom that focuses on introducing different ways of learning is a plus whether a classroom has disabled students or not. Historically, “special schools” and “special institutions” were created for disabled people to live in so they wouldn’t be part of society. Continuing on that ideology means acceptance in the classrooms and society will not exist. Deaf schools do give deaf/hard of hearing students a great community but can also be isolating. There’s also little experience with the hearing world and personal growth that can allow deaf students to be seen as a whole person outside their deafness. Having deaf students in public schools can expose hearing children to deaf/hard of hearing children and help develop a more inclusive world altogether. Here are some possible pros of a deaf-inclusive environment in schools:
- Developing social and interpersonal skills between deaf and hearing students.
- Normalizing the coexistence between deaf and hearing students and not making deaf/hard of hearing kids feel different in a bad way because they have a disability.
- Teaching hearing kids about sign language and other aspects of deaf/hard of hearing students’ lives.
Building on Inclusive Learning
The first iteration of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was developed initially as a response to civil rights issues for Disabled students. But this means that school administrators have to want inclusion and provide support for their teachers. The new model of the “inclusive” classroom is equivalent to the status of the ADA, meaning that there’s a ramp and a spot in the back of a building for someone to be included, but there’s a lack of acceptance, understanding, and versatility. Why can’t ASL (American Sign Language) be part of the teaching curriculum? Why not teach about disabilities in classrooms? Deaf students are like any other children and have communicative skills (such as making a comment, request, or acknowledgment, etc.) that match those of their hearing peers. In other words, whether deaf or not, these students are mentally capable of learning how to read with the right tools. But outside of that, just because a classroom does not have a pupil with a disability shouldn’t mean that inclusion and acceptance should be ignored. Students are rushed away during certain times of the day during school like a secret that no one talks about. All students should have a safe learning environment about disabilities in general.
Teaching Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Kids How to Read
Reading Rockets outlines outlines steps for creating a fun, diverse learning environment when reading to deaf students:
- Having an accessible selection of stories translated into American Sign Language (ASL); having text and ASL side by side helps.
- Lots of illustrations/visual elements incorporated into the story work better since ASL is a more visual language.
- Reading the same stories over and over gets them more used to reading and understanding.
- Deaf/hard of hearing children are like any other children, so you should let them take the lead when they’re reading. It’s also important to let them interpret the style of the sign on their way so that they can read the story in the way that makes the most sense to them.
- Connect the stories they’re reading to the real world, which helps deaf/hard of hearing children better remember and understand the material they’re reading.
StorySign is an app from Huawei, a Chinese tech company, which uses artificial intelligence to help children who are deaf and/or hard of hearing by having an avatar translate stories of all languages into sign language. The app features both the written words as well as the sign language done by the digital avatar of translations of classic stories like Peter Rabbit and Where’s Spot.
The digital characters are designed specifically for the deaf/hard of hearing children they’re teaching and are often children as well—a great way to engage young kids who learn faster by listening to other kids their age! There are also a lot of vibrant colors and facial expressions to keep the children focused and excited to learn.
Why Inclusion Matters
Advocating for inclusive environments such as the importance of deaf/hard-of-hearing learning to read initiatives is a small step toward a larger inclusion. Many people may push back and say that disabled kids should be put in their “special” places that can support their needs. Others may argue that teachers are stressed and underpaid, and taking on the task of inclusive learning is too much for them. This contributes to the misconception that disabled people aren’t worthy of a collective education and should be put in the corner because they are a drain on society. This is why we are fighting for acceptance no matter how different someone is because we all deserve the right to be included. It starts in the classroom with little things like diverse learning or kid’s books centered on disability awareness. It’s time to rise up and not bend down to how society has mistreated disabled people and see that as the guidebook. Integration starts in the classroom, acceptance starts in the heart, inclusion starts in the mind. If only the world was built with disabilities in mind, there wouldn’t be a fight to show that everyone is worthy of a collective education where world-changing relationships are built.