Born profoundly deaf, I often swam against the tide of popular opinion about deaf and hard-of-hearing people, just as successful non-Braille users did in swimming against the tide of popular opinion about blind and visually-impaired people which assumes that all blind people use Braille. While myriad educational choices were, and are, always available to deaf children – whether to teach speaking and listening, whether to teach sign language, or teach both, or follow other educational methods – conventional wisdom among uninformed (and I emphasize uninformed) hearing people was that pretty much all deaf people signed. This impression has made its way into popular media and informs general cultural discussions with regard to the deaf community. For that reason, many hearing people who approach me assume that I grew up relying on sign language to succeed, when that was never the case. I grew up learning to speak and listen, and did not learn sign language until I was 21 years old. Even then, sign language is not my primary mode of communication. I am most comfortable conversing in spoken English.
This does not mean that I am against sign language. I am happily fluent in it, and have many deaf friends who I communicate with in sign language. I know many deaf people who have grown up being taught sign language, and have become successful and happy in their lives. Although sign language is the best known, and very popular, mode of communication in the deaf community, it is one of many different and equally valid educational flavors, each with its own strengths and shortcomings.
For several decades until the end of the 1970’s, oral education for the deaf was implemented for as many deaf children as possible with little consideration for individual differences. While I have greatly benefited from oral education and count many other deaf friends who benefited as well, I cannot say that this approach was as beneficial for all deaf children. It was an “unmitigated disaster” for the deaf community in that many deaf children who otherwise needed sign language were denied it, sometimes by force. That is why in the 1980’s and particularly 1988 with the Deaf Power Now movement at Gallaudet, there was a backlash against oral education and increased interest in education through sign language, or bilingual education using sign language and English. This trend, however, was not helpful for some deaf children for which the oral or auditory-verbal option could have been more appropriate.
By a similar token, uninformed sighted people think every blind person uses or should use Braille, when that has never been, and should never be, the case. Braille is not always appropriate for everyone in the blind community. That 90% of employed people know Braille means that the other 10% who are employed do not use Braille and still were employed.
The point of my article is that Braille has become less accessible to blind people who have a need for it. It does not overtly say that Braille should be the be-all and end-all for every blind person, only that it is an essential tool to enable blind people to more effectively use the written word. My article is critical of the school administrators who made assumptions that non-Braille technologies are good enough for blind children, without examining carefully the skills and abilities of each child and whether that child has a need for Braille support. A school administrator who is extremely knowledgeable about the value of the Braille system, and extremely knowledgeable about the value of other assistive technologies for the blind, is in a much better position to evaluate the educational needs of a blind child than one who is not as knowledgeable. If that administrator says that this child does not need Braille to have a good education, then that administrator’s word carries far more credibility than the word of another administrator who cannot claim to have that level of knowledge. I take to task the educators who are not as informed or ignorant of the subtle and not-so-subtle issues in the blind community, and yet make decisions that impact the lives of blind children. This has unfortunately been a problem in the past couple of decades as the number of blind people using Braille declined.
Technology is an empowering tool for people with disabilities, and also a tool that should be used carefully and appropriately – especially in cases where non-technological approaches can be just as beneficial, if not more so, to a person with a disability. I have had a cochlear implant (CI) for five years and I love it. Children as young as 8 months have undergone surgery for CI’s. The popular media has called the CI a device that “cures” their deafness and helps them to “hear again” (as if babies born deaf had ever heard sound in the first place!). This has given some parents the mistaken assumption that the CI will fix everything that is wrong with the baby’s hearing – when that is never the case. Consistent therapy, lots of elbow grease, and active parental involvement are essential to the educational success of a child implanted with a CI.
This is the important rule that should be observed no matter what type of disability: evaluate each person on an individual basis, and evaluate that person well in the context of known tools, devices, and methods that have been verified to succeed for other persons with the same disability. It’s the approach I have tried to take in my writings and commentaries about issues relevant to people with disabilities, especially in the business world.