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Call for Dismissal of Mitch Daniels-Appointed Board Members to the Indiana School for the Deaf

Mitch Daniels - Caricature

Mitch Daniels - Caricature by DonkeyHotey


May 30, 2011,

Governor Mitch Daniels
200 West Washington Street, #206
Indianapolis, IN 46204-2731

Dear Governor Daniels:

As a language scholar and Hoosier, I find serious problems in your decision to appoint proponents of pure oralism to the board at the Indiana School for the Deaf. While promoting the artificial and often-futile task of lip-reading and risky cochlear implants which do not guarantee spoken language development, the oral-verbal teaching approach favored by these new board members could seriously hinter the education of the Indiana deaf community. Forcing deaf students to stop signing and attempt to speak English and understand speech is a crude tactic which held sway for 100 years in the dark ages of our country’s linguistic history. As it now stands, American Sign Language (ASL) is the chief language at the Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD). English is used as a second language. It should remain this way.

Thanks to the pioneering work of William Stokoe and others, scholars now accept ASL as a full-blown language operating in the left perisylvian brain region. Like spoken English, it even includes syntax (Neidle, Kegl, MacLaughlin, Bahan, & Lee, 1999). Astonishingly, as Kyra Karmiloff and Annette Karmiloff-Smith have noted (2001), children learning sign language go through the same process hearing kids do while learning a spoken language. They react to sign motherese (babytalk) and sign babbling, form one-word signs then develop strings of two, until complete sentences are formed. Remarkably, sign learners even make similar mistakes that verbal language learners make (p. 180-187; Petitto & Marentette, 1991). In fact, as Susan Goldin-Meadow and Heidi Feldman (1977) first pointed out, deaf children born to hearing parents invent their own “homesign” language which they later adapt to ASL once they enter the deaf community.

ASL is an important tool for linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists. Like the FoxP2 gene, mirror neurons, music, and motherese, sign language—many scholars believe—holds significant clues to how spoken language originated and evolved (Corballis, 2002; Falk, 2009; Poizner, Klima, & Bellugi,1987; Stokoe, 2001). That is just another reason why linguists like Harlan Lane (1992) see deaf people not as disabled, but as attuned to the very inception of homo sapiens in ways which speaking people are not.

Since the early 1980s, ISD has been on the cutting edge of deaf teaching. Its bilingual method of stressing English alongside sign language has had well-respected results. Moreover, ISD’s early detection and community outreach programs are more than adequate for parents seeking unbiased knowledge on how to approach the language learning of a deaf child. Nationally, ISD has been a role model and does not need to be invaded by oralism.

Individuals associated with Hear Indiana (the state branch of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) have no place on the ISD board. The AG Bell group–heavily funded by cochlear implant companies (AGBA, 2006, February 2; AGBA, 2006, February 21)– grew out of Bell’s antiquated, immoral, and dangerous beliefs in eugenics and the inferiority of deaf people, and there is good reason why the Indiana deaf community does not want history to repeat itself. If Hear Indiana and the medical device companies truly belief that the best route for parents to take is to allow a surgeon to drill through the mastoid bone to the inner ear of deaf infants, risking permanent facial paralysis, bacterial meningitis, and other complications without a guarantee of success, that is their own business (FDA, 2010). But these people have no right to distort facts and tell other parents what is best for them, especially when it comes to something as essential as language.

Cochlear implants’ wonderful results are highly overstated, probably so the medical industries which fund groups like AG Bell can profit from them. Even the FDA notes that for some children implants do not help at all to develop spoken language (2010). Just a few days ago, a study by IU School of Medicine’s Derek Houston (2011) suggested that infants with cochlear implants ignore speech stimuli and as a result score poorly on speech perception recognition years down the road. The earlier the implant is done, IU’s Mario Svirsky and Rachael Holt explain, the better the results for language development, but implanting children under the age of one is very risky business and drastically increases the chances for serious health problems. Plus, even implanting infants under the age of one does not seem to improve the child’s speech perception, which is also essential for full spoken language comprehension (Svirsky & Holt, 2005).

It is essential that all deaf children learn ASL, even if parents do decide to have them equipped with cochlear implants. To eliminate ASL from the ISD curriculum would be a tragedy. It is just wrong to force those flourishing in sign language to no longer use it and run the risk of losing language altogether. It is my understanding that the parents of deaf kids enrolled at ISD fully support the school’s teaching methodology.

The common-sense argument against having AG Bell/Hear Indiana representatives on the ISD school board is very simple. It is one of human rights. Language, whether spoken or signed, is what makes us. As cognitive linguists know, language in all its beautiful manifestations is embodied in our brains and bodies. It is our sense of space, our sense of identity, and our culture. All children deserve a language, and deaf children should be immersed in ASL as infants so they can claim their own space in the world. The deaf community has the right to have a school board which supports its wishes. They are, after all, the experts in this debate. It should not be left to any governor or special interest groups to play God when it comes to language. Thus, I strongly support the following three requests written on May 17, 2011, by the Indiana School for the Deaf Parent Teacher Counselor Organization and call for:

Governor Daniels to rescind the appointments of Scott Rigney, Mary Ann Buhner, and Lucy Witte;

Governor Daniels to allow deaf individuals to make up 51% of the ISD board;

Governor Daniels to establish transparent procedures for the selection of new board members that include the input of school/community stakeholders and seek to appoint qualified persons who are dedicated to the mission, vision, and educational philosophies of ISD. (para. 6)


Doug Martin, Ph.D.

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Doug Martin

Doug Martin

Doug Martin is a Walt Whitman scholar, poet, fiction writer, editor, musician (the Delicious Militia), and teacher.