Still striving to be heard

27th October 2000 at 01:00
DEAF CHILDREN TALKING - The Parents' Guide to the Natural Aural Approach. Edited by David Harrison. DELTA (Deaf Education through Listening andTalking). pound;25 Tel: 01440 783689. START TO SIGN. By Richard Magill and Anne Hodgson. Royal National Institute for Deaf People pound;12.99Tel: 0808 808 0123. AUDIOLOGY: An Introduction for Teachers and Other Professionals. By Maryanne Tate Maltby and Pamela Knight. David Fulton pound;15.

TOUCH, TOUCH AND TOUCH AGAIN. By Doreen E Woodford. British Deaf History Society pound;5.50, + pound;1 pamp;p. BDHS Publications, 52 Hill House Road, London SW16 2AQ. E-mail: TEACHING CHILDREN WHO ARE DEAFBLIND: Contact, Communication and Learning. Edited by Stuart Aitken, Marianna Buultjens, Catherine Clark, Jane T Eyre and Laura Pease. David Fulton pound;18A. REVIEW OF GOOD PRACTICE IN DEAF EDUCATION. By Stephen Powers, Susan Gregory, Wendy Lynas, Wendy McCracken, Linda Watson, Angela Boulton and Dot Harris. RNID pound;10. Tel: 0808 808 0123

What makes good practice is sometimes hotly contested. This applies to many issues in education, but is strikingly the case in relation to deaf children. Consensus on the priorities, methods and fundamental purpose of deaf education is very hard to find, which must leave many parents bewildered. To take one example, current DFEE and local authority policy initiatives to promote inclusion as a basic human right are a source of contention for some involved with deaf children.

This crop of publications in deaf education is fascinating on several counts, not least because of the deep professional divisions and strongly opposing moral stances revealed. So what underlies this lack of agreement on good practice? Because deafness affects language, and choice of language determines cultural access and opportunity, we enter a minefield of conflicting values. Teachers of the deaf are mostly in favour of "natural auralism", an approach which aims to make best use of residual hearing and provide a rich spoken language and literacy environment. Oralists say that access to mainstream schooling is important, reflecting what most parents of deaf children would prefer, leading to inclusion in hearing society.

Written for parents, the DELTA Guide is a loose-leaf binder filled with information dealing with everyday minutiae: what to do if children keep removing their hearing-aids, golden rules for radio aid use, roles of different professionals, how loop systems work, strategies for bedtime, statementing procedures, sharing books with young deaf children.

Case studies illustrate how families cope with ear infections on holidays, or deal with other children's teasing remarks. This is the kind of resource parents find invaluable, with accessible, magazine page layouts and shrewd tips. The DELTA text is clear about its own stance: "We know that most deaf children can learn to listen and talk." Parents are asked to choose listening and talking, not signing, for their children "because it works", but how real a choice is this, and how safe are the guarantees?

At the other end of the spectrum, some educators strongly believe that British Sign Language is the birthright of all deaf children. According to this view, deaf children can develop a "deaf identity" free from disability, since in a community of BSL users there are no communication barriers.

Requiring deaf children to speak violates their right to their own language and culture and imposes the norms of an oppressive hearing society on a cultural minority group. Parents who choose not to sign with young deaf children are committing abuse, according to some deaf adults.

In bilingual education, special schools and deaf adults have an important role, and while all deaf people have to engage socially and economicall with hearing society and to become literate, these goals must be achieved through sign. Published by the RNID, Start to Sign is an introductory reference which covers basic vocabulary and grammar required for everyday conversations in BSL, clearly illustrated. Signs are organised topically: animals, places, sport, weather. BSL features are explained, such as modifiying signs to add stress.

Altogether a book that succeeds in what it sets out to do; the moral dimensions are only briefly touched upon. The origins of BSL are said to lie in the 16th century, while the landmark Milan conference of 1880 when a group of teachers voted against its use in schools, meant that BSL entered a dark age in terms of education.

The current rising popularity of BSL (and a reason for starting to sign), according to this guide, is the evidence of illiteracy in most deaf school-leavers educated by oral methods, evidence which DELTA claims is no longer representative.

Audiology: An Introduction for Teachers and Other Professionals offers a basic introduction to the anatomy and physiology of hearing, how deafness is caused, the effects of different kinds of deafness, and how hearing losses are screened, assessed and diagnosed. Many books have covered this ground before, but this digest is brilliantly clear. Non-specialists will find the sections on classroom environments, hearing aid use and cochlear implants, practical and illuminating.

Implants are a rocket boost to the signing versus oralism controversy. They stimulate auditory nerves electrically to produce sensations of sound in deaf children. Since the aim of cochlear implants is to enable deaf children to acquire speech, this poses a threat to the deaf community's future membership, culture and sign language.

The 90-page book by Doreen Woodford, sponsored by SENSE, briefly but charmingly charts the progress of education for the deafblind through a series of historical fragments. Experts in deafblindness put individual communication needs first and foremost, not ideology.

Teaching Children Who are Deafblind provides a rare source book on deafblindness entirely rooted in practice and research. Contact, communication and learning are fundamental to us all, and the chapters show what this can mean for a deafblind child. I can strongly recommend this text to anyone interested in learning differences and how creative teachers can exploit every avenue for helping individuals act on their environment.

Strategies are suggested for observing learning styles, leading to the tailoring of a "communication package" for individuals. The obvious difficulty for a deafblind person in trying to communicate is meeting others who can reciprocate on their terms, a point to ponder for all those who determine communication "choices" for deaf children or their parents.

Finally, the RNID's A Review of Good Practice summarises the findings of a survey carried out by Manchester and Birmingham universities. Some might find the research strategy disarmingly naive: send out 25,000 questionnaires and see what you get back, then talk to a handful of named services, teachers, parents and professionals.

The intention was to pick up the common threads in examples of good practice, but since only 628 replies were received, more than half from parents, what happened to the other 24,000?

Nit-picking apart, this valuable report richly documents the full range of viewpoints and highlights what appear to be the critical issues for good practice. The executive summary makes 80 separate points, betraying just how difficult it is in this field to please all parties.

Alec Webster Alec Webster is professor of educational psychology, University of Bristol Graduate School of Education

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