Equal Opportunity and Oppression in Education: The Case of Deaf Education in IsraelHaggith Gor
Edited by Robert Rivers
The State of Israel …. will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…"
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, (May 14, 1948)
The importance of equal opportunity in education is well accepted among professionals in the field. Educators agree that children have the right to receive high quality education that is both adjusted to their needs and that prepares them for full integration into their society. The goal of this equal opportunity in education, therefore, is to help guarantee all people an equal chance to actively participate in society regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or disability. With the establishment of state public school and the enforcement of compulsory education for all children, educators believed that a unified curriculum was the key to equal opportunity in education. In other words, children who received the same curriculum, containing identical subject matter and similar frontal teaching methods, were expected to perform at a similar level. Structurally, children were grouped into very large classes according to age and their academic successes or failures were attributed to their own innate academic talents. However, soon it became evident that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds had a higher rate of failing in the system that was created to endow them with equal opportunity.
The academic performance gap between children of disparate economic backgrounds was perceived to be a result of cultural differences between the various groups—differences connected to class and ethic origin. It was assumed that an increase in material resources would close this developmental and culture gap. Therefore, great sums were directed to projects that were expected to increase the academic output of "underprivileged" populations. In spite of the new computers, classrooms, teacher trainings, curricula, and expanded workdays for teachers, the educational gap changed very little. Though needed in many respects, the economic investment in the education of marginalized populations has shown to be inefficient in creating opportunities for children to transcend cycles of underperformance.
Leading scholars of critical pedagogy offer alternative theoretical interpretations of why such programs fail and why students from marginalized groups do not perform at the same level of those of dominant groups. Such scholars claim that sophisticated mechanisms of oppression within educational structures push students from marginalized groups to the very marginalized areas they come from. Therefore, an analysis of the characteristics of these oppressive mechanisms is essential in order to understand how to alleviate the deprivation caused by current forms of unequal education. Among these characteristics that need to be considered is how the oppression different marginalized groups suffer from resemble each other: i.e. the Palestinian minority in Israel, the oriental Jewish people, women, the poor, Ethiopian Jews, and children of special needs. Cases become more complicated when certain children suffer from multiple circles of oppression: e.g. a deaf Bedouin girl.
In this article, I will use critical pedagogy to examine how the deaf are educated in Israel. I will analyze the characteristics of oppression that deaf children and their parents endure in both the formal and informal educational systems. The arena of deaf education is complex; many changes came about during the past 10 years. Some may be described as progressive—based in human rights—and others as regressive changes that are detrimental to the recognition of deaf culture and sign language. In this article, I wish to illustrate these different transformative forces, in addition to other existing characteristics of deaf education that prevent equal opportunity for deaf students. In order to do this, I will elaborate on various issues: the attitude toward language and culture; expectations placed on students; stereotypes, prejudices, and labeling; and the issue of hidden curricula. The goal in doing so is to address what the current lack of equal opportunity in education actually means and what the necessary conditions are to create a genuine reality of equal opportunity in education.
My choice to expound on the forms of oppression that prevent equal opportunity in education using the case study of the deaf in Israel derives from a deep personal connection to the deaf world. I raised a son who has been deaf since birth and I experienced with him the various oppressions inflicted upon him because of his disability. The prejudices he and other deaf children faced, along with the many other exclusion mechanisms imposed on them, appalled and continue to appall me. This base of indignation and my hope for more equal education for those who are marginalized inspire this article.
Judicial and Medical Developments Regarding the Deaf
Meaningful developments occurred in the last 10 years in both the judicial arena—concerning people with disabilities in general—and in the medical field with regards to the deaf. Bizchut, a human rights organization that represents the rights of people with disabilities, instigated the enactment of the People with Disability Rights law in 1999. This law demonstrates an essential transformation with regards to the treatment of people with disabilities by ensuring: (1) equal rights for people with physical and mental disabilities as active members in society and in all aspects of life; (2) equal rights to make their own decisions concerning their life; (3) equal rights to be included in regular society; and (4) equal rights to receive the same services as other members of society, rather than separate services.
The law also forbids the discrimination of people with disabilities in the working environment regarding various aspects such as: gaining employment; working conditions; promotions, and termination of working contracts. In addition, it states that every work place with 25 employees and above must have a proper representation of people with disabilities. With regards to transportation, people with disabilities have the right to suitable access to public transportation: municipal buses; trains; airplanes; and naval vessels. Finally, every public place and public service building (museums, hotels, parks, cemeteries, etc) should be accessible to all people with disabilities, including hearing disabilities. In 2005, an amendment to the law of People with Disability Rights added the right to the accessibility of sign language, interpretation, or other means suitable for enhancing communication for people with hearing impairments. Though the implementation of the law remains problematic, its enactment marks a major change in perception.
At the same time of the enacting of this law regarding the rights of those with disabilities, two new medical discoveries where found that affected the lives of those with hearing disabilities. First, the new technique of cochlear implants was developed that drastically enhanced hearing capacities for those with disabilities. Also, the genes that cause deafness were discovered. The cochlear implant became very popular and continues to be so. It allows children who were born with severe deafness to both hear speaking level frequencies and enables them to more easily learn how to speak clearly and to communicate. Without this hearing aid, (while taking a shower, swimming, sleeping etc) they revert to levels of deafness. With the implant, they can function the same as someone with light to medium range hearing impairment.
The cochlear implant—which is an impressive medical achievement—was first perceived in the deaf community as a threat and drew resistance from both the international and Israeli deaf communities. While the distribution of the cochlear implant among toddlers achieved amazing results for speech, it caused regression in the recognition and use of sign language in early childhood and elementary school. The cochlear implant thus strengthened the position of those of the oralist tradition who advocated against the use of sign language in deaf education and supported only the use of voice for the deaf to communicate.
In addition, at the same time of the invention of cochlear implants, the medical field also developed technology that could determine deafness from the fetus of women. This new technology then gave new parents the choice of whether to keep or abort their babies given the knowledge that their child would be born deaf. The social authority of medicine lead many to believe that with the cochlear implant and prenatal checkups technology that the phenomenon of deafness would disappear entirely and with it deaf culture. Thus medicine undermined the necessity of sign language and cast authoritative doubt in the bilingual educational approach. This added strength to the oralists' tradition that sign language would become an obsolete language and justified ignoring it.
To contrast the oralist concentration on the sole use of voice for communication, at the same time of these discoveries, trends of using sign language became prevalent in some high schools and other levels of informal education prior to the invention of cochlear implants. Before the invention of the cochlear implants, sign language was adopted in these two educational forums for practical reasons. The use of sign language interpreters and the creation of a school culture that was inclusive to the deaf stimulated new achievements for those with hearing disabilities. The efficiency and effectiveness of the use of sign language therefore was not built on an ideological recognition of deaf culture, but rather on meeting the needs of students in a very pragmatic way. This rise in sign language thus created tension between the oralist tradition and the bilingual approach—a tension that still exists.
The major changes in the judicial system with the law regarding the rights of those with disabilities did not transform the educational system. Though the spirit of the law was sound, it was not adopted by those who facilitated deaf education in a way that heralded a new philosophy or worldview for working with the deaf. On the contrary, medical technological achievements—i.e. the cochlear implants and prenatal checkups for deafness—strengthened the oralist approach in Israel. Deaf children and their parents continued to be exposed to paternalistic practices applied by deaf educators, namely: the prevention of sign language and thus an efficient form of learning for the deaf; the erasing of deaf history; the negation of language and culture; and negatively labelling the deaf. All of this still blocks the possibilities for those with hearing disabilities to receive equal opportunity in education.
The Deaf in Israel
Currently, there are between six and seven thousand deaf people in Israel—approximately 1-1.5 in every 1000 people. This statistic does not include people who become deaf due to old age. There are two definitions for deafness, one medical and one socio-cultural. The medical field defines individuals with loss of hearing above 70 decibels are clinically deaf. However, a socio-cultural definition of deafness includes those who perceive themselves as part of the deaf community and culture. In this instance, deafness is more an identity rather than a medical prescription. Therefore, there are those who medicine would not define as deaf who consider themselves part of this community and there are those who are clinically deaf who do not choose or feel a part of deaf culture. Like other disabilities, deafness is also socially constructed.
The last formal survey in Israel regarding the education and employment of people with hearing disabilities was completed in 1992. This survey demonstrated that the general education of the deaf was much lower than that of the general Israeli population. At that time, 50% of the deaf had only elementary school level education compared to 25% of the general population. While 27% of the general population had a high school diploma in 1992, only 7% of the deaf population did. Regarding the levels of deaf participation in the Israeli workforce, the survey found that out of 5 possible employment categories (5 representing the highest level of skilled labor), 70% of the deaf were in the lowest level, 16% in levels 2 and 3 and only a very limited few individuals were in the top category. In addition to this, 50% of the deaf women worked as unskilled laborers compared to only 8.4% of the women in the general population
Since 1992, trends show continued discrepancies between the deaf and the general population regarding educational and occupational opportunities in Israel . Using a smaller segment of society, Miriam Levinger demonstrated in her doctoral research in 2003 that 24.8% of deaf participants possessed only elementary level school education, compared to 10.5% of the general population. In addition, 32.7% of the deaf had a high school level of education while 52.6% of the general population had their diplomas. Concerning employment, 31.7% of the deaf were unemployed. Finally, while 40.4% of the general population participated at higher levels of employment, only 25.8% of the deaf community found themselves in such categories.
Such statistics do point to some level of improvements for the deaf since 1992. There are now deaf students studying in universities the number of deaf graduates has increased. Yet, it is very possible that the gap between those with hearing disabilities and the general population remains the same in Israel since the level of education of the hearing population has improved as well. While there are no exact numbers, leaders of deaf community speak of rampant unemployment among deaf members of the community, including deaf members with higher levels of education.
Education of the deaf: Frameworks and Approaches
Currently in Israel, there exist three different educational frameworks for deaf education:
1. Special education: Here, the deaf are grouped together with other deaf students who may have multiple disabilities in separate schools for the deaf.
2. Integrated classes: Under this category, the deaf learn academic subjects separately from the general student population in small classes of regular school, but are they integrated into lessons such as physical education and arts and crafts.
3. Individual integration: In this category deaf students who are most talented at lip reading are placed individually in classes with students who can hear, in neighborhood schools.
Regarding kindergarten, the same three categories exist. With both kindergarten and higher grade levels, it is important to note that the terminology ‘integrated’ does not entail true integration between deaf students and those who can hear. Both groups may study in the same school, but they are often very segregated. In addition to the classroom environment, the deaf and the hearing do not play together at any level from kindergarten to high school. Supportive educational structures for the hearing impaired exist only in the major cities in Israel. Therefore, deaf students living in the periphery need to be bussed into cities to receive education. There are also certain educational structures in the large cities in Israel, such as the Shema centers that provide children with hearing disabilities informal education, enrichment programs, homework assistance, field trips, and social activities. Ironically, the meaning of ‘Shema’ in Hebrew means ‘hear.’
Regarding Arab children, the situation is even worse. The general discrimination of Arab children in education in Israel does not spare the deaf. Currently, the school for deaf Arab children in Nazareth is the only one of its kind in all of Israel. Beer Sheba had a school for the deaf and had many Arab Bedouin children, but it was closed (after which the Jewish deaf children were integrated into small classes in a school for the hearing while no alternatives were offered for the Bedouins). In large cities like Haifa and Jaffa, Arab deaf children are sent to Jewish schools so they receive education in Hebrew and therefore do not learn how to read lips in Arabic. This then thwarts communication with their families and cultural surroundings. In the villages, all deaf students are grouped together in classes separate from the general student population. Therefore, a 12 year old deaf Arab student may find her/himself sitting next to a 6 year old. Even though by law children with disabilities are promised education until the age of 21, very few Arab children are fortunate enough to receive it. Those that do get special education are often patronized by their teachers. The expectations for them are very low (and thus so are their achievements). Regarding disparities in gender, in the Onim boarding school in Kfar Saba, for example all of the Bedouin deaf children are boys. Deaf Arab girls above elementary school usually do not receive any education at all.
Approaches to Deaf Education:
There are three major approaches to deaf education: the Oral Approach, the Total Communication Approach; and the Bilingual Approach .
The oralist approach assumes that since the deaf need to live in a hearing dominated world, the skills most necessary are those aimed at helping them integrate into that world. Therefore, oral communication skills receive the most attention. In educational settings, a great deal of effort is put into teaching the deaf oral languages: e.g. helping them develop their speech ability; lip reading; correct pronunciation; and their usage of residual hearing. In addition, the oralists prevent the usage of sign language because they believe that it stymies efforts needed to learn oral skills. The aim of the oralist approach is to prepare deaf children to function as much as possible like ‘normal’ hearing children
Adherents of the total communication approach, on the other hand, believe that all means of helpful communication should be offered to the deaf in order to teach them language capacities: i.e. lip reading; sign language; finger spelling; and writing. Total communication espouses a signed Hebrew that combines signing and oral language simultaneously. The grammar used is Hebrew language grammar.
Finally, bilingualism assumes that deaf children live in two cultures so they need to be literate in both deaf culture and in mainstream society. The role of education, therefore, is to empower them in the formation of a healthy identity, positive self image, and good intellectual and social development that then enhances their fluency in both worlds. In other words, this bilingualism model is employed like any other bilingual language learning process. Educators who hold this approach believe that deaf children of hearing parents have the right of accessibility to deaf culture to which they naturally belong (even though it is not their parents' culture). Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of educators of the deaf to present this approach to the parents as well as the other approaches and the differences between them.
Each approach portrays a different set of values, positions, and contradictory world view. Both the oralist and total communication approaches are held mostly by educators of deaf children who are hearing. Bilingualism, however, usually derives from those who belong to the deaf community either deaf or hearing. The former two approaches come out of a rehabilitation world view: i.e. an approach that tries to minimize the disability of deaf people as much as possible in order to fit them into the hearing society. Achievement in this approach is determined by how successful the education is at helping the deaf person adjust to society, erase her/his disability, and in the end make her/him resemble the hearing majority. The rehabilitation worldview does not see people with disabilities as a political minority. Instead, it imposes the expectation on them that they rehabilitate themselves and fit themselves into the normative society.
In contrast, bilingualism springs out of a human rights worldview that perceives the deaf as people who deserve equal rights like any other human being. This approach expects society’s majority to fully accept those with disabilities and to make all services accessible to them. This worldview calls upon the majority to transform itself and to make necessary adjustments required by the minority. The clash of the rehabilitation and human rights world view thus creates a conflict regarding the most effective form of educating children with disabilities. It is fueled by some very important and unresolved questions: E.G.: Who has the right to decide the form of education? Does the deaf community have a say concerning the education of deaf children? What are the rights of parents of deaf children? What is the relationship between caretakers who can hear and the deaf community?
In Israel today the oralist and total communication approaches dominate early childhood and primary education. But, at the high school and formal educational levels, complex processes of transformation are happening. In two leading high schools in Israel, due to practical reasons, there is a current trend towards bilingualism. This process began when I filed an appeal on behalf of my son to the Supreme Court of Justice in 1991. The outcome was a compromising court abiding sentence that forced the ministry of education to provide a sign language interpreter who accompanied my son in classes of students who could hear. Because this system proved very effective, teachers and fellow students were exposed to sign language on a daily basis and were part of the process resulting in amazing improvements in achievements of a deaf student. This process has strengthened in the last 10 years even after my son graduated. Shema—the informal educational organization mentioned previously—established the use of sign language by offering afternoon educational programs for the deaf and initiated sign language training for soldier-teachers. In addition, the Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel helped 250 students integrate into universities through the use of sign language and transcribing services. Their approach is also bilingualism. In lower level and vocational high schools, sign language is used, however other means of tracking are applied similar to the one that are implemented with hearing students, thus preventing them access to equal education, in spite of using sign language.
The Negation of Sign Language
Sign language is considered the natural language of the deaf. With the absence of hearing, the visual channel serves as the most effective means for communication. The deaf use sign language among themselves, even if they are good lip readers. This happens simply because deaf people cannot read the lips of other deaf. The most talented deaf are often successful following lip hints. In addition, they use residual hearing and well developed intuition to understand unheard speech. Therefore, lip reading can be seen as a mechanism to help the deaf find their way in the hearing world, yet amongst themselves even the hard of hearing communicate in their natural language—sign language. This language, like all other natural languages, was developed within the community of its users—the deaf. The deaf invented it—not educators who could hear—as a means for practical communication, not as an educational aid to help them overcome their limitation. It cannot be compared to the use of brail by the blind or the use of wheel chairs by those who are paraplegic. Israeli sign language is not a crutch for communicating in Hebrew as some deaf educators illustrate.
Instead, sign language represents the creation of a local culture for a distinct group of people; therefore, sign language is different in every country. In Israel, Israeli Sing Language (ISL) is used; in the USA, American Sign Language (ASL) is used; and in France, French Sing Language is used, etc. Though sign language is recognized as an official language in the Scandinavian countries, South Africa, the USA, among others, sign language is not recognized as such in Israel. Sign language is one of the pillars of deaf culture. Its negation in Israel, therefore, represents the most oppressive element in the exclusion of the Israeli deaf culture. Its most pernicious manifestation is in the negation of the use of sign language in educating deaf children.
In their adulthood, many of the deaf—even the ones that were educated through oral modality -choose to belong to the deaf community. While they are often rejected by the hearing society, they need social interaction with people who are like themselves. Eighty percent of the deaf marry deaf spouses. They feel more comfortable together; they share a common language; they have similar experiences, history, humor, and nuances in communication that those who hear do not understand. They are a linguistic minority with certain cultural characteristics. Contrary to other linguistic minorities, deafness is not a family matter: i.e. the "tribal" element is missing. It is comparable to the homosexual minority. Like other minorities, the self recognition and identity of the deaf is partially in reaction to the exclusionary attitudes of the majority. With regards to the deaf, this includes the attitude of their hearing care takers. It is difficult to comprehend the reality of suffering caused by repetitious rejection in work place, in the home, and in society. Like foreign language speakers, the deaf are looked upon as strange, alienated, and sometimes even as mentally or physically disabled because of the heavy deaf pronunciation. Such attitudes of the majority often push even those who are hard of hearing into the deaf community where they too do not feel rejected because of their impairment.
Most deaf individuals are born into families who do not share their impairment. From their birth, their experiences are those of a minority because even in their families they are surrounded by family members who can hear. Unlike Arabs in Israel or minority communities in the USA, the experience of "otherness" of the deaf from their hearing families is more powerful because the deaf are not only a minority in society but in their own families as well. Being with other deaf people with whom they can interact using sign language is the only place in their lives where the deaf do not experience being a minority. The denial of sign language in deaf education thus abolishes any possibility for the deaf to not feel like a minority. Living among others with similar life experiences is essential for developing positive self perception and self confidence. In depriving the deaf of the use of sign language—their easiest avenue for fluent communication—they are unable to develop a real sense of equal existence.
There is an improvement in the last 10 years, however. The Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons succeeded in establishing the right of deaf students to study in universities with the assistance of sign language interpretation or transcribing services paid for by social security. Though their initiative is based in the rehabilitation of those with disabilities—not in human rights—this achievement opens doors to higher education for the deaf. Two leading high schools, Yahud and Yagur, support students using sign language. Yagur High School even has a bilingual program in which deaf teachers and hearing ones collaborate in the same class. Israeli researchers, Meir and Sandler, published a book on Israeli Sign Language that raised its prestige among scholars. They demonstrated—what has been proven by research of other sign languages—that ISL is a complex language with the grammatical rules that characterize every language. It has complex syntax, grammatical structure, rich vocabulary, metaphors, idioms, double meanings, etc. Despite these efforts, many educators and care takers of deaf children still do not see the importance of sign language. Many continue to believe that it is an obstacle preventing the deaf from developing vocal skills. Though progressive research has been done, much research in Israel regarding language development of deaf children still ignores the significance sign language plays in the positive development of deaf children. Even though Meir and Sandler's research clearly shows that sign language meets all the criteria of other languages and is itself a legitimate language, many educators and care takers of deaf children continue to believe in the supremacy of spoken language.
Care takers of deaf people who adhere to the rehabilitation perception—rather than the human rights philosophy—refuse to acknowledge sign language as the natural first language for deaf children. For them, using sign language symbolizes a failure of the deaf to adapt to a hearing dominated society. Some even believe that it damages deaf children's ability to develop spoken language capacities. Most teachers of the deaf do not master sign language. Often they only know a few basic signs; thus, they force the deaf children to read lips, which results in teaching and learning that is thwarted and clumsy. Without sign language, learning does not reach deep levels and deaf children only understand pieces of complex ideas. Unfortunately, they are often then blamed for having a limited perception. Teachers who view deaf students as slow learners with a limited ability to grasp abstract ideas narrow down the curricula, which then locks the deaf in an endless cycle of unequal education.
Many examples from society point to the fact that there is much to be done to overcome the common rejection of sign language. A director of the main institutes that offer services for deaf children once told me: "Our children are oral, they don't know sign language." She chose to deny the existence of deaf culture and sign language in order to avoid facing the discomfort of not being able to understand the children's language—which would have caused her feelings of inferiority: i.e. that the students would have a secret language that the teachers would not understand. This educator retired at one point, but the person who replaced her also has no command of sign language and does not believe in it. However, since students use it to communicate with one another, she has no choice but to allow it.
In another example, a deaf friend of mine—whose five- year- old son has a cochlear implant and has good command of both Hebrew and Sign language—told me that while waiting for an auditory check up in the clinic she was approached by one of the audiologist who demanded that she should stop communicating with her child in sign language. Also, a kindergarten teacher of deaf children who used to sign told me, "today there is no longer a need for sign language; the cochlear implant solves the problem of deafness. Now, the children with these implants are actually hearing and they are placed in integrated kindergartens in order to improve their spoken Hebrew."
Though different people within Israeli society wish to negate sign language, the principle that guarantees deaf persons' right for their own language is written in The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. In this, it clearly illustrates, “The State of Israel …. will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…" This, along with the law of the rights of people with disabilities, confirms the right of the deaf to communicate in sign language (1998). However, since the rehabilitation approach dominates deaf education, educators and care takers of deaf children do not approve of sign language and therefore prevent the deaf from accessing their language and culture. They do not see that the education of the deaf falls under rights that are guaranteed by the state. Thus, they violate basic human rights, namely, the right for freedom of language, education and culture.
The repression of sign language has a long and harsh history. As I have explained, it is grounded in the thought that sign language prevents children from learning the dominant language of the majority. In the past, educators smacked children's hands or tied them behind their backs in order to inhibit the use of signs. The roots of negation of sign language stem from the 19th century. The oralist tradition won a decisive victory in the Milan convention of deaf educators in 1898. They passed a resolution prohibiting the use of sign language in order to enhance lip reading and spoken language. Though the deaf community has defied this ban in many parts of the world, its traces still dominate deaf education in Israel.
The repression of sign language today is more subtle than in the past. Now, it is done by conveying hidden and explicit messages to deaf parents that using sign language equates to educational failure. Teachers use signs only as a last resort when children do not understand the material without the help of signs. Sign language is used most in the very low level vocational schools. Teachers encourage and reward oral communication and view sign language as an inferior and shameful language and pass this on to children in subtle ways. They value the children who read lips and do not sign more. Children are rewarded if they speak well and are excellent at reading lips by being individually integrated into high academic (hearing) classes. Instead of treasuring the bilingualism of deaf children who naturally grow into two linguistic cultures, they teach them to despise sign language speakers. They also pit the children placed in hearing classes against children who are placed in lower academic special education classes.
It is reasonable to think that teachers of deaf students should have a good command of sign language, but the majority of deaf educators in Israel are not fluent in the language. It is not mandatory for them to know the language and currently there exists no proficiency exam for sign language—in order to obtain a teaching certificate—as is common in other western countries. Even though deaf children grow up in bilingual surroundings, in school they receive an education based only in one language—Hebrew. There is not even a single educational framework that offers sign language for deaf students the way that Hebrew is being studied by hearing students and Arabic is studied by Arab students. Since the deaf have no opportunity to learn from more educated and knowledgeable adults, the only way the deaf can improve their sign language is through interaction with their peers. Some educational institutes have sign language classes for interested teachers and counselors, but not for children. Even schools that integrate deaf students into hearing classes offer a variety of languages as electives, but rarely do they include sign language. And, ISL is not recognized as a second language at universities at any level, whether for B.A., M.A., or PhD degrees.
The debate over signs vs. the oral approach for deaf education comes up from time to time in institutes where signing is used for pragmatic purposes. A few years ago, the director of one such institute proposed to reinforce commitment to oral speech and limit or prevent the use of signs. The only deaf staff member working in this institute put his hands behind his back and reflected on his traumatic experiences of being beaten on his hands when he dared to communicate with his peers using sign language. He said he would leave if such a decision were passed. This discussion then ended with no decision.
The condemnation of sign language connects very closely to past times when certain languages were banned by dominant groups and minority groups were not allowed to use their own language. Around the time of World War II, Mussolini issued a decree that made German language illegal among the Austrian minorities in Tyrol. In Spain, Franco forbade the Catalans from speaking their language in public places. Just as these minority groups now have the right to speak their own languages, deaf children also have the right and are entitled to learn sign language as a means for developing their intellectual, emotional and social abilities. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—in addition to the Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel—guarantees this right.
Deaf children who grow up in bilingual surroundings can easily grasp the concept of signs because they come natural to them. This is because Hebrew is easier to learn if it is built on the foundation of sign language syntax. But sign language is perceived as being so unimportant that the matriculation exams for deaf children do not even include proficiency testing in sign language. Deaf children are not expected to reach any level of expertise in their own language. Those who make decisions regarding deaf education remain unwilling to make the changes that are necessary to officially recognize sign language as a natural language for the deaf. This conduct very closely resembles the patronizing attitudes that often characterize a majority population’s rule over minority groups.
The lack of appreciation both for sign language and for the rights of deaf children to study in sign language is manifested by the utter lack of interpretation services in many education frameworks. Since the ability of many deaf students to grasp language without sings is limited, this drastically restricts their possibilities for developing intellectual capacities and knowledge suitable to their age development. This thus inhibits their ability to interact with hearing children on an equal basis. In addition, the deaf have only partial access to different school agents, such as psychologists, administrators, etc. In a well-known school that integrates deaf children, a meeting occurred between a deaf student, her mother, and the school director. The mother was forced to act as interpreter, since the professional interpreter was absent. However, the director demanded that the mother stop translating because he said it bothered him that the student looked at her rather than at him when he was speaking. The mother objected, claiming that with no translation her daughter would not understand anything. The director said that if she did not, then he would end the meeting and her needs would not be handled.
In the same school, during a meeting that introduced the structure of the matriculation exams to the deaf students, the deputy director could not tolerate the attentive looks of the deaf student at the interpreter, and so he stopped her from translating. He also claimed that the students need to look at him while he was addressing them rather than at her. So the meeting continued without signs, the students looked at him but did not understand what he was saying, and then afterwards their teachers had to repeat it all over. A sports teacher in another school prohibited the deaf girls to sign between themselves because she did not understand. Though some schools have become more accustomed to the use of sign language, many educational systems still carry a very depreciating atmosphere with regards to the deaf.
As explained earlier, the improvement in high schools regarding the use of sign language does not flow out of an ideological struggle, but rather from meeting the practical needs of deaf students. Using sign language has proven to be an effective way of enhancing the achievements of the deaf, thus teachers have slowly become influenced by the results. I was told by a teacher who works in a deaf and hearing integrated high school that all school ceremonies, parents meetings, and other public events are translated. It has become so mainstream at this school that if sign interpretation is missing, everyone inquires about the whereabouts of the translator. In this school many teachers take sign courses offered by the school, and for a short period, the school even offered sign language as an elective for hearing children. It was eventually cut by budget restraints. Parents testify too that their children enjoy most of the time translation. However they also bitterly recall many degrading encounters with care takers threatening how devastating the use of sign language would be to the future of their children. Still, deaf children do not study their language the way other children do: i.e. how Hebrew speakers learn Hebrew. In another school that accommodates only deaf children, the present director objects to the use of sign language, so the presence of signs is decreasing.
The only high school in Israel where sign language is studied in an orderly manner is at a religious high school in Jerusalem, where the director believes that hearing students, as well as deaf students, should learn sign language. The school has offered sign language classes for over 10 years. The director is also interested in having the students take a matriculation exam in sign language. It is possible within the reality of Israel that the only way that sign language could be introduced into the matriculation process is through the instigation of an education leader who can hear.
The negation of culture – history
Community gives its members a sense of belonging and continuity, common history, solidarity, connectedness and self identity. A community that shares a common culture provides its members with the foundation for emotional development that then shapes collective identity through ancient narratives and collective ethos. It helps stimulate inner strength, creative powers and communal development within its members. Though people who can hear rarely think about how much of these attributes are built through the capacity to hear, the deaf often face the brutal reality of being cut off from their own people due to their impairment.
Thus, the deaf community started to investigate the specific history of the deaf as minority members of greater communities. Recently, the deaf looked into the treatment of the deaf during the Holocaust. This research is very important and meaningful because it creates space for the solidification of connection of the deaf collective to the wider Israeli Jewish collective. Some of the findings show that some non Jewish deaf citizens helped Jewish deaf members to survive under the Nazi persecution. In one instance, a brother of a deaf person who had a good command of sign language saved a Jewish deaf child that he met at the concentration camp by translating for him what was going on. By doing this, he helped him conceal his deafness. These actions proved that with regards to making moral decisions, for many the identity of being deaf was more powerful than the national and religious identity under the Nazi regime. A deaf survivor told how he did not understand what was happening during the war, since no one told him. However research shows that there was deaf collaboration, Hitler deaf Youth, and the Reich Union of Deaf in Germany (REGEDE) who helped persecute deaf Jews. In 2006, a memorial ceremony was held in Yahud High School to commemorate the deaf who were persecuted, sterilized, and murdered during the Holocaust. During this event, testimonies were narrated and an historical research report was presented about the deaf during the holocaust. This was a meaningful step towards the recognition of deaf history.
Very few of the care takers of the deaf and hearing decision makers of deaf education are familiar with deaf history. It is not included in history textbooks and is not even mentioned in other lessons. It is even absent from the curriculum designed for deaf students. Many people do not know, for example, that at the peak of the Eugenic movement, the sterilization of the deaf during WWII included the German deaf as well as Jews. This sterilization happened in other countries as well: e.g. in the United States, 60,000 disabled people were sterilized between the years of 1927-1970. As I already mentioned, in the Milan resolution, hearing educators of the deaf prohibited deaf children from using sign language. These facts are just a few examples from the historical fabric of persecution that the deaf have experienced as a minority. Their resistance and struggle against oppression is a struggle for human and social rights. Learning deaf history would greatly contribute to the strengthening of the community, to engendering a deeper sense of connection, and to raising awareness as to how their rights remain threatened. Perhaps this is exactly the reason why deaf history remains a research subject for hearing university scholars and historians while the deaf do not have access to it.
The deaf do not study sign language from deaf community intellectuals; they do not study the laws concerning their rights; and they do not study about the deaf in the Jewish community, nor do they study about the experiences of the deaf in the present deaf community in Israel. The deaf only get familiar with their customs and activities through friends’ networks. Disconnecting deaf children from the deaf community prevents them from creating a link to resources of language, positive self identity, and learning about themselves in a communal context. Therefore, deaf children often confront being a minority as a primordial experience of aloneness, devoid of information, which might provide a connection to more collective and cultural perspectives. It would be an interesting assignment to send deaf children to research the roots of the deaf community and to interview aging members of the deaf community. Unfortunately, a recognition and respect within educational processes for the culture and history of the deaf does not exist. In the French film "In the Land of the Deaf," a young deaf interview testifies that he was afraid he would die young. He concluded that deaf children die before reaching adulthood because he never saw a deaf adult. Only at the age of 12, when he met deaf adults in a community event, did he feel relieved of this fear.
The history of the deaf is a history of untold oppression. Academic material is available—such as Shulmit Wolkov’s analysis of the history of deaf in Europe and the USA. Various selections of material exist in English which could be taught and translated into Hebrew. Oliver Sacks' book, Seeing Voice, could be used as a foundational text for the deaf. Yet, the hearing care takers of the deaf deny this history. They ignore the cultural identity of the deaf community because they adhere to the guidelines of the rehabilitation approach where constant Sisyphean efforts are done to assimilate the deaf into the hearing society. The acknowledgment of deaf culture, in general, and historical narrative, in particular, contradicts this worldview.
Viewing deafness as a culture also contradicts the medical field’s perception of deafness as an impairment that needs to be fixed. Many of the deaf care takers hold this medical view. This creates ignorance with very pejorative results. For example, an important decision maker of deaf education policy was overheard while arguing with an interpreter who demanded support for the use of sign language: "Tell her that soon there will be no more sign language, that we will be back to the times of sitting on the hands." The genetic pre natal check ups for deafness and the abortions of deaf fetuses reinforce the negation of deaf culture held by many educators. According to this perception, deaf culture is a passing episode that will disappear from the world with the medical triumph over deafness.
Hearing Care takers – Deaf Clients
As minorities, deaf children receive their education from teachers who belong to the majority group, the hearing. The policy regarding deaf education is done by those who can hear; their placement in the different educational frameworks is done by those who can hear. Most of them are estranged to the group culture of the deaf and most of them do not have a good command of sign language. As mentioned earlier, most of the adapt rehabilitation as their basic approach to education so the deaf can function in a hearing society.
Deaf education is not in the hands of the deaf community. In every educational framework concerning deaf children, only a small, negligible percentage of the teachers are also deaf. Deaf and hard of hearing teachers—either according to the medical definition or the cultural definition—are rarely able to get a teaching position anywhere. In the last 10 years, many deaf academics graduated from different universities. Of these, very few were accepted into the education system. For example, in Tel Aviv's school of the deaf, there is one deaf teacher for physical education. In Jerusalem’s elementary school for the deaf, there are two deaf teachers: one for physical education and the other for general studies. Of these teachers, a very small number receive tenure.
When I tell people, who are not familiar with the deaf world, that the majority of teachers of deaf children in Israel do not know sign language very well and that most of the educational framework for deaf do not even include sign language, they raise an eyebrow in disbelief. People who are not involved in deaf education find it difficult to understand the rationale for preventing the use of sign language from the deaf. The arguments seem absurd to them. Non-experts of deaf education who are not exposed to traditional forms of thinking see it only as natural that deaf education would be bilingual since the children grow into two communities: a Hebrew speaking one and a signing one. However, the "experts" of deaf education—who are by and large hearing professionals— adhere to an historical tradition, which includes an antediluvian ban on sign language. Even today, many hearing educators, do not believe in the existence of both languages. At best, they see sign language as an aid to integrate the deaf into the hearing society. Professionals believe that sign language is unnecessary for children with cochlear implants or those who are talented at speaking Hebrew. They realize that some children do not develop any language skills without the use of signs, so reluctantly they give up. They believe that some children's additional disabilities or developmental difficulties prevent them from reaching a proper level of Hebrew. They blame the children, while at the same time they refuse to see the faults in the oral approach and their own educational methods. They also view the children who grasp lip reading well as successful while children who need signs as less successful.
Very few view the deaf as a cultural and linguistic minority This view is mostly held by members of the deaf community and a handful of academics. Though a lot of good will and concern are given by professionals towards deaf education, the field remains dominated by the hearing and the deaf do not have a foothold. Their control—though it may have good intentions—of the educational territory does not allow the integration of sign language or deaf culture into it. As I stated, adult deaf professionals do not participate in the decision making processes that determine the approaches used in deaf education. In spite of technological developments, internet, early diagnoses, hearing aids developments, the judicial system’s new attitude toward people with special needs, and the increasing human rights discourse in general society, still education for the deaf can be described as patronizing, paternalistic, and coercive. Though condescending attitudes have refined over the last 10 years, the educational discourse has become more complex and stigmas and stereotypes that cause low expectations continue to exist. The absence of deaf educators hinder deaf children from developing a positive sense of identity and teachers are still not required to pass sign language proficiency exams. Parents, especially deaf parents, still report patronizing attitudes towards their children as common occurrences, and hearing parents do not get information about the bilingual approach as an option and rarely meet successful bilingual deaf adults.
Patronizing care takers usually lack awareness of their condescending attitudes toward the deaf. They are full of good intentions and see no faults in their positions; therefore, change comes very slowly. Most of them devote their lives to deaf education and are very dedicated professionals with high values and a spirited sense of mission. At the human level they are wonderful people—caring and committed to their work. The ability to reflect and criticize their own attitude is blocked by high walls of wholeheartedness and knowingness that blind them from seeing what is so obvious to lay people. They perceive criticism as offensive insults and react with psychological analyses of the criticizers, hearing or deaf. The socially constructed normative practices of the hearing care takers perpetuate the social construction of deafness as a disability.
Stereotypes and Prejudices
Educators' and care takers’ attitudes towards the deaf can be likened to the attitudes of colonialists toward "natives". Their paternalism is mixed with ideological justifications of perceptions that engender stereotyping. This creates a system of control, similar to the ones of colonialist societies toward the people they control. The hearing paternalists do not understand the structure of deaf society; some have not met deaf individuals as equals but rather as consumers. Since they choose not to see deaf people as equals, they invent characters or imagine the "deaf" as being a certain way, thus strengthening the justifications for their stereotypes.
Harlan Lane in his book, The Mask of Benevolence – Disabling the Deaf Community, makes a list on page 36 of traits attributed to deaf people in the professional literature. The list—compiled from extensive research and articles of hearing scholars who investigated the deaf—is so long and general that every deaf individual could be labeled with one of its components. Thus, the stereotypical views are reinforced by caretakers' observation of any deaf person. According to Lane’s list, in the eyes of caretakers, the deaf are:
"Social: childlike, clannish; competitive, conscience weak, credulous, dependent, disobedient, irresponsible, isolated, morally undeveloped, shy, submissive, suggestible, un socialized. Cognitive: conceptual thinking poor, concert, doubting, egocentric, failure externalized, failure internalized, insight poor, introspection: none, language poor, mechanically inept, naïve, reasoning restricted, self awareness poor, shred, thinking unclear, unaware, Behavioral: aggressive, hedonistic, immature, impulsive, initiative lacking, personality undeveloped, possessive, rigid, stubborn, suspicious, unconfident. Emotional: depressive, emotionally immature, lack empathy, explosive, frustrated easily, irritable, moody, neurotic, paranoid, passionate, ….." (Page 34)
Hearing teachers, who get their training at the university, study endless amounts of research articles that present the deaf this way. They then practice teaching along these patterns of stereotyping and they set low expectations on deaf students. They explain the difficulties they have in teaching through the framework of these stereotypes and they tend to lean on them to explain what the deaf students need. Therefore, many of the methods are built on a paternalistic sentiment that reinforces prejudice and gives self justification for preventing change. Stereotypes and prejudices have severe implications on the educational practices. They do not remain in the teacher's head but are transmitted by teachers in their behavior towards the children: e.g. the way they talk to them, which often includes accusations, acceptance of low achievements; and the way that they tend to put deaf students on lower vocational trade tracks. Worst of all though, the deaf internalize the stereotypes inflicted upon them by their teachers. They learn to believe in what teachers transmit to them, and begin to adapt to it as part of their nature.
The achievements of deaf students in leading academic high schools have improved the percentage of students who complete matriculation exams. The number of deaf university graduates has exponentially jumped—to over 250 deaf in universities in Israel. One would expect this change to lead to a transformation of the stereotypical view of the deaf, but some of the decision makers of deaf education still hold the same prejudices. Thus, when I asked about the performance of deaf teachers, a school director told me that he still prefers hearing ones since they are more reliable and devoted. She claimed that deaf teachers have low work moral, that they are childish and irresponsible, and that they lack discipline. I asked whether it could be solved through dialogue. She explained that it is not possible because the deaf lack motivation, are aggressive and impulsive, have no self awareness, and tend to blame their surroundings rather than being self critical. I do not belittle the difficulties hearing educators face while trying to integrate deaf teachers, but I wish to point out that the explanations often given to the phenomena they face are still characterized by the same stereotypes which Harlan Lane highlights.
Implications of Labeling
Research shows low levels of literacy among deaf children and adults. The acceptance of the low level of literacy leads to professional tracking later in life and channels them towards lower vocations. Labeling deaf children at an early age as poor readers contributes to this tracking and drastically encumbers their quest for higher education. They also learn to see themselves through the mirror of their teachers’ negative perceptions, resulting in low self image concerning their academic abilities. Many hearing educators treat deaf children the same way that other disadvantaged minority groups are treated: i.e. as possessing low potential. This also justifies tracking them to lower vocations. Tragically, different researchers point out this somber reality in a way that reinforces the stigma care takers hold. This prevents the necessary changes from taking place.
One of the most common existing stereotypes is that the deaf have low levels of abstract thinking; consequently, teachers decrease the intensity of their lessons. The level of learning drops anyway because of the time it takes for communicating in oral Hebrew rather than using sign language. The tortoise-like pace matched with the low level of expectations creates structures that inhibit the deaf from learning abstract ideas, thus producing a self fulfilling prophecy. When I demanded that my son study the same materials in geography that hearing children study, I was told by the school advisor that my son would not be able to cope with the material because it requires high levels of abstraction that deaf cannot grasp. I asked for example of such high abstract material that deaf may not be able to understand and was given the example of Longitude and Latitude. So I went home and explained to my son what Longitude and Latitude are. He understood the concepts immediately. This is just one example to demonstrate—as does much research done in different populations—that the Pygmalion effect that creates self-fulfilling prophecies has very detrimental effects on children. What kinds of opportunity are given to deaf children if teachers label them as incompetent and unable of understanding highly complex material?
Another example from my son's life shows how preconceived notions and self-fulfilling prophesy hurt deaf children. When he was in junior high school, I told one of the more open minded teachers that my son wants to study English as a second language in a regular class with hearing children. She immediately responded that he could study in an intermediate level class. When I asked her why he could not study at the highest level, she retorted that deaf students cannot engage in anything higher than the intermediate level. Such generalizations about the abilities of deaf students label them ahead of time and determine their course of engagement without relevant examinations of their talents and personal potentials. It dictates their achievements and often their self esteem. Consequently, without a good level of English, the access to universities in Israel or in the US is completely blocked.
Many deaf children are sent to vocational schools that offer concentrations of vocations such as mechanics, carpentry, simple metal works, etc. but have a very low level of academic concentration. Even though the employment market has undergone a tremendous transformation and many new possibilities exist, vocational schools primarily still offer deaf students only manual, non-technical—i.e. computer—work. In these schools, where the students have very few choices, sign language is permitted and used by teachers—though lacking proficiency. However, these schools have a very low image, and some are under the supervision of the ministry of labor rather than the education ministry. Here, too, the level of expectation is abysmal, and generally so are the achievements of deaf students. The characteristics of these schools very closely resemble the symptoms of oppression known in low level socio-economic hearing populations, oriental ethnic majorities, Arabs, etc.
Contrary to vocational schools, the academic high schools that incorporate the use of sign language opened some high tech programs for the deaf. Deaf students are still placed in many classes alone where they do not have the support of their cultural group. Seemingly, the system tries to meet individual needs and offers a large variety of possibilities; but, in the process, the deaf students are stripped of their community and thus their group power. Relatively, matriculation results are high in these schools, but lower than the rest of the population. One would expect the same percentage of matriculation from deaf and hearing students if they have equal opportunity for education.
Deaf students, who are integrated in regular classes, find themselves socially isolated from other deaf, and often from those who can hear as well. Talented deaf people who follow prestigious professional paths normally find themselves facing a very difficult choice between their social and cultural membership and their professional and intellectual advancement. Having to choose between these two essential components of active membership in society is another form of oppression the deaf endure. The deaf feel they need to choose because often times they are manipulated by care takers who present this false either/or dichotomy, when in reality there need not be any contradiction. Too often, care takers use the power they have in influencing the deaf reality to perpetuate the stereotypes often attributed to the deaf community.
Assimilation and Separation
Though hearing educators paternalistically set a goal to integrate deaf into hearing society, this mission fails in all integrated schools in Israel. Deaf children always play together with other deaf children—even at the kindergarten level—and have very little contact with children who can hear. In an attempt to explain this striking phenomenon, educators say that the deaf prefer seclusion. The hearing do not share the responsibility for overcoming the social segregation. While some teachers do a minimal level of educational activities that might allow both groups to come closer, they still expect the deaf to adjust themselves to the hearing, but not vice versa. When the deaf fail to integrate “properly”—which inevitably happens without proper educational support—the deaf children are blamed. If they do become assimilated, it is so their deafness will not show. Educators are proud of being able to hide students' deafness and say things like: “At our school, deaf children are fully integrated; one may think we do not even have deaf children; they are like all the other kids!” These expressions exemplify the perceptions of educators: i.e. that the goal of integration is to blur the differences in order to make them disappear, rather than recognize and honor the diversity and special identities present. This oppressive form of integration demeans the deaf and does push them into seclusion—which, as I said, they are later blamed for.
The need to assimilate the deaf into the societal status quo emerges from a great fear of diversity. Normally, humans feel safe when they are surrounded by what they know, whether this implies homogenous populations, understood cultural norms, etc. That which is perceived as foreign often evokes fears since difference usually stimulates thoughts regarding our own normality and abnormality. When the majority of people comply with commonly accepted laws, speak the same language, and keep the same norms, they believe they control reality. The presence of disabled "others" points to the fact that much in this life is ungraspable and unexpected. This scare people because they wonder if such “otherness” will touch their personal lives, that of their families, or invade their society. The fear of the "other" motivates the deep need to assimilate everyone into what is comfortable for the majority. This rouses an unconscious desire within majority populations to suppress minorities for their otherness. This suppression can be said to stem from the primordial fear of the disintegration of the known that thoughts of unity produces. At the same time, this fear of the "otherness" reproduces the "otherness" in order to keep the boundaries between "us" and "them' intact. Julia Kristeva says the fear "is already inside us, in our dreams, our anxieties, our amorous and existential crises" she suggests that recognizing the fears within ourselves would help us build a shared life with people with disabilities. The fear of defect and death could be translated to care patience and solidarity. This way the disabled become subjects who help tame our vulnerability and society take upon itself receiving the disabled.
Struggle for rights as an alternative
My son, Shaul, is twenty seven years old. He is deaf and studied most of his school subjects in a regular hearing class while accompanied with a sign language interpreter. In order for him to study according to the appropriate level for his age, I had to conduct a long and persistent struggle against the ministry of education—a struggle that ended only after I filed a plea to the Supreme Court of Justice with the assistance of an organization named, “Bizchut", that fights for the rights of people with disabilities. My son and a few other deaf children of his age group were the only ones in the Israeli school system at that time, who studied in their own language, Israeli sign language. With the assistance of interpreters, they caused the school to realize the importance of sign language for deaf students. For many years, sign language did not officially break into the educational structure, but after my son left, the interpreter’s position remained funded and interpreters accompanied several classes according to needs of the children. This indicated that sign language gained more respect and recognition. Today, his old school has different forms of integration regarding deaf students, from interpretation for many individual children to interpreting in the public events and ceremonies.
Other cases were not as successful in the struggle against the segregation of deaf students. In one example, parents sought more equal education for their deaf child who was placed in a deaf class that was divided between those students who were "successful" with oral skills and those who were "slow learners.” The parents asked that their child be moved to the class considered "successful," arguing that splitting up the children this way creates a self fulfilling prophecy of underachievement. The High Court of Justice refused to intervene in what they perceived to be a matter that should be solved by dialogue between educators and the parents.
The active struggle for deaf children's’ rights to study using sign language, along with Hebrew, seems to me the most effective means for stopping the oppression in education which prevents equal opportunities for deaf children. The struggle I conducted influenced the educational system; it did not demand more resources, but rather a change of attitudes. A more profound transformation will happen only if this struggle continues. Unfortunately, with the case of my son, I had to resort to threatening with the power of law to enable him to get his basic educational rights according to his talents—rather than according to the stereotypical labeling of those who do not read lips well as lacking intelligence. In general, many conditions have improved as the judicial system now speaks the language of human rights and the law of equal rights for people with disabilities provides a solid foundation for this struggle. Care takers of deaf children need to offer deaf children access to as many options as possible in order to ensure equal opportunity in education. Much still needs to be done. In the absence of sufficient improvements in the education system, I believe the best alternative for the advancement of the rights of deaf is to enhance the awareness of the human rights perception among care takers of the deaf and with the deaf community.
The Economic Aspect
The phenomenon described in this article may be viewed within the context of power relationships between hearing care takers and deaf students. Unmistakable imbalances exist between the power held by the hearing and that held by the deaf. Those who can hear control the resources, they dictate the policies of deaf education, they influence parents, and they dominate deaf children's social activities. The inequality in the power relationship is characteristic of colonialism.
The ideological justifications for stereotyping the deaf serve to partially to cover up economical interest protected by paternalism. If educators and care takers of the deaf acknowledge the importance and effectiveness of sign language in deaf education, the monopoly of the hearing on deaf would end. Children prefer teachers who they understand and who understand them. It has been shown that with sign language, deaf children's’ achievements dramatically improve. If more children had access to it, it can be deduced that parents would then prefer bilingual education. This would begin to break down some of the oppressive power structures surrounding deaf education.
Overt and covert economical aspects are part of the dynamics of colonialism and paternalism that uphold these oppressive structures. Many establishments that care for the deaf provide for many care takers. There are large budgets designated for the deaf that no one wants to share with the deaf themselves. For example, psychometric tests used to be administered to students when they transitioned from primary school to high school. Many years after the use of such tests were ruled out; deaf children were still sent to such psychological exams. The psychological services paid their staff to conduct the tests so as not to threaten the jobs of the diagnosing psychologists. The economic implications do not end there, though. Many others earn their living in the cochlear implant business, the medical field, speech therapists, audiologists, etc. Together, they create a sizeable group of people who have interests in the deaf world—interests that are not always in accordance with the interest of deaf themselves.
Regarding higher education, a substantial improvement has happened in the past ten years due to the intense activities of The Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons. Their work helped open the universities' gates to the deaf through the use of sign language interpretation and transcribing services. Also, the Social Security authority agreed to include academic education in the social rights for the deaf. The services include interpretation, tutoring, free Xerox services, etc. The support of both organizations caused a breakthrough in deaf education that has enabled over two hundred and fifty deaf students to study at various universities and colleges.
The struggle of activist organization, The Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons, is an interesting case of a pragmatic and consistent endeavor for social change of an organization. The Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons is guided by a human rights perception that promotes the rights of deaf individuals in academic education. The Social Security authority operates through a rehabilitation perception that supports deaf individual academically in order to give them vocational rehabilitation. This is problematic because students must gain approval for their choice of studies from the social workers at the Social Security authority. The authority usually makes decision according to the probability of deaf students to find work in the area that they focus on. Therefore if a deaf person wants to study Chinese philosophy, for example, or something else considered impractical, the chances she/he would get interpretation services to assist her/him is very low. In this sense, the deaf have to yield to the paternalistic decisions of Social Security to determine what is appropriate for them to study and what is not. Also, graduate school studies are not included in this arrangement. The combination of two different world views yielded some important results, yet more can be done. According to the new law of accessibility of all public services, the university should be responsible for providing sign language interpretation for deaf, like they do in other countries. This would be ideal because then the deaf could make their own decisions about what they study rather than having this decision made for them.
Deaf Education and Internet Development
Another change that had a meaningful impact on the deaf was the internet revolution. Unlike in the USA, a TTY system was never developed in Israel. With the invention of the fax, deaf communicated via faxes. They abandoned fax machines when cellular phones became popular and many now use all kinds of instant messaging systems. The new means of communication enable deaf more opportunities for interaction that were not available prior to the development of the internet. It would be fascinating to research how this computer mediated communication influences deaf culture and their interaction with the hearing world.
In surfing the internet, one finds a variety of subjects concerning deaf reality, social events, interpreting services, prejudices the deaf have encountered, discriminating incidents, and opinions about cochlear implants etc. There are also general matters of interest to the deaf community such as education, available technologies, dating services, work search engines, etc. Also, there are many services offered by the deaf, deaf artists, deaf care takers, and various virtual communities such as parents of deaf children. Products produced by the deaf are for sale. Though much of this is on English language websites, a considerable amount of forums and activities are in Hebrew. In the deaf and hard of hearing forums, one may find information about social events, discussions of interest, rights, etc. Among deaf youth—as among hearing youth—a common criterion for popularity consists of technological orientation, usage of SMS, and discussion in chat rooms, computer games etc. Deaf organizations use the web like any other organization. They post information in digital bulletins and journal, have member lists and discussion groups. Though serious research was not been done yet, I would assume that access to the internet enhanced deaf literacy as well as deaf orientation regarding the general culture. Though the internet opens positive opportunities for the deaf, it also brings with it the negative aspects, such as easy access to pornography at an early age. However, the access to knowledge and easy mechanisms for communication that the internet offers out weigh the negative aspects and represent a significant breakthrough for deaf individuals that need to be studied.
Seven years ago, David Michaelis—who was active then in Internews Middle East —and I initiated a project of peace education for Jewish and Palestinian deaf youth. We thought to create dialogue using internet video conference technology that would help overcome the physical distance. We predicted that since Israeli and Palestinian sign languages are similar, it would be easier for the Israeli and Palestinian deaf to communicate in conflict transformation-based encounters than between the hearing populations, who suffer from greater language barriers. We also knew that the deaf identity creates a sense of solidarity and closeness among deaf of different nationalities. We thought that through this project, Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian deaf would deliver a message of peace to the rest of us.
An Israeli school and a Palestinian school liked the idea. I remember traveling with David and my son to Ramala to visit the school of the deaf. I spoke English with the school director, since my Arabic was not good enough to fully express myself. The director answered me in Arabic since speaking in English did not suit him. My son, on the other hand, communicated very easily with the deaf children and with the deaf teachers in sign language. They had no communication limitations as we had; their dialogue was fluent and they were able to have a deep and meaningful conversation.
Unfortunately The Deaf Dialogue Project did not succeed, though we were able to raise a significant contribution for it. The internet band width was not wide enough 7 years ago, and the technological infrastructures were not developed enough for such video conferencing to transfer sign language. The money we raised was donated for acquisition of computers for the school of the deaf in Ramala. Peace education still is not included in the curriculum for deaf students, though it is sorely needed. I do have the hope that one day we will create a virtual or a real encounter between Palestinian and Israeli deaf, in which they will have the opportunity to teach us all the power of sign language for creating a real, caring, and honest dialogue across divided lines.