Monday, February 18, 2013

What Crisis?: The reality for Illinois School for the Deaf

A letter published by Jerry Covell on has started to appear in the deaf community through social media, prompting an outcry from those who are protective of their cultural identity and language.

At first glance one might make the conclusion that there is a crisis at Illinois School for the Deaf. However in reality the crisis is not within the school, but within the minds of a select few who truly believe Cued Speech presents a danger to their core beliefs. 

I will break down specific statements from Covell's letter and offer some points of clarification so that people do not have the wrong perception of internal issues at ISD. 

"Deaf people cannot do anything" 

After checking with my contacts at ISD, I could not find any evidence of anyone making statements to that effect. In fact I found the opposite to be true. ISD teachers and administrators have made it a priority to provide a positive and supportive environment in which students can learn and are encouraged to follow their dreams. What I've seen is that teachers are dedicated to doing whatever they can to support their students in doing whatever they desire.

I wonder how the students of ISD would feel if they found out someone is telling the world that their teachers believe "deaf people cannot do anything."

"A bit of history" 

The discussion on Cued Speech actually began over three years ago and started out just at the high school level. The decision to implement Cued Speech from preschool to high school only occurred in 2012. This decision was not made "arbitrarily" as Covell purports, but was driven by data collected with the help of a nationally renowned researcher who specializes in literacy instruction and has published several articles on Visual Phonics. Staff at ISD tried Visual Phonics with students to give them access to the phonemic information and structure of English, and while students made gains, the teachers were not satisfied and researched other options and then learned about Cued Speech. 

The "former superintendent" who made this administrative decision did not resign, but instead retired as an state employee of Illinois. Read further for more information on the history behind Cued Speech at ISD.

"Two different camps of educators" 

Covell asserts that the school has now fractured into competing factions based on educational philosophies. This is not true. Yes, there are some individual teachers who are resistant to the changes that have taken place, but it seems that after a review of the data the majority of faculty have accepted Cued Speech as a means of providing visual access to English at the phonemic level.  

People were not "stunned" by the introduction of Cued Speech as Covell states, but rather they were fully aware of the conversations taking place between faculty and administration on using Cued Speech in the classroom. They also knew about the pilot study at the high school level that started in 2010, so there was no "shock and awe" campaign here. Rather, this was a slow process that took time to develop with input from the school community.

"An adverse environment that is hostile to the deaf community" 

This is yet another baseless assertion that Cued Speech is harmful to the deaf and hard of hearing community. If one was to go to cue camps and social events, one might discover that cuers are actually some of the most inclusive people in the community. Cuers are the ones experiencing oppression and discrimination from members of the Deaf community because of ignorance and bias. What we don't do is reflect this back on them. We just continue to be inclusive by providing sign language interpreters at cue camps or workshops or switching to sign when requested.

"The Language Planning Committee... stacked with Cued Speech supporters" 

Another assertion by Covell is that the Language Planning Committee was "stacked with Cued Speech supporters" and that the interim superintendent had to add more DHH teachers to the committee. This is just not true. The committee was the same committee that has served ISD over the years and the committee members were already established prior to the introduction of Cued Speech. More administrators were added along with two staff members from the ASL department (both deaf) and the reading specialist, but no more DHH teachers.

There seems to be some confusion over the term "stacked" which was used, but the context that Covell uses is incorrect. Statements were made referring to the data and evidence being stacked in favor of using Cued Speech, not the number of supporters.

"The shocking incident"

There indeed was an incident, but from multiple reports it seems that Fara Harper, a teacher, was the one who instigated the incident after repeatedly pushing the issue of whether Angela Kuhn, the principal, would enroll her son in Harper's class. This occurred two hours into the evening after the meeting for the Language Planning Committee so at this point people have been tired and ready to go home. 

Harper kept pushing the issue of Kuhn's son even though Kuhn did not want to discuss it. Finally Kuhn relented and explained that she has concerns about her son's progress at ISD and contemplated the possibility of mainstreaming him next year. 

The focus was on what Kuhn's son was able to learn visually and what kind of educational programming would be a good fit for him. A good example to highlight her son's learning style was when he kept getting in trouble for not paying attention during ASL storytelling times. Kuhn suggested that the teacher voiced the story for him, and there was a dramatic change in his behavior. He attended more and did not get in trouble anymore. This would be indicative of a child who is able to attend (pay attention and learn)using auditory information. 

Remember, this was a contentious back-and-forth conversation between Harper and Kuhn. Kuhn made it clear that if it was her daughter (who is hearing), she would place her in Harper's classroom without a doubt, but she needed to consider her son's multiple needs in this case. During this time Harper had repeatedly asked whether it was because she was deaf. Reports indicate that Kuhn said something to the effect of the following:

"Well, I guess if that's the reason you can't provide the educational environment he needs, then I guess yes." 

And this is where Harper says "There, you said it!" and storms out of the room. Some people have expressed their opinion privately to me that Harper was trying to bait the principal into making a statement to this effect.

It is important to understand the dynamics of Kuhn's family and her child's unique needs. The child is surrounded by deaf role models (father, aunts, cousins, etc) at home. However he has special needs as a consequence of his upbringing in an orphanage, late access to hearing technology, and Cerebral Palsy. When he was adopted he had no language or self-care skills. As a result, the child does not visually attend well and has developed spoken language more quickly than signed language. In this case there is a rationale for increasing access to spoken language models in order to develop auditory and speech skills more readily.

What Covell did not report was that Harper reported this incident as a case of discrimination, yet her claim was rejected. Now there are additional reports of Harper pursuing a claim of harassment against the entire school.

"... Termination" 

Covell and Harper's beliefs of a conspiracy to enforce systematic discrimination and harassment are utterly unfounded as the administration has engaged in a process that included feedback from school faculty, parents, and even students themselves.

At this time there is no evidence of staff members "bullying, harassing, jabbing, patronizing and condescending" others who are deaf or hard of hearing. On the other hand, I could make a claim that Jerry Covell is bullying ISD and Cued Speech through untrue and uncorroborated statements.

There is no disempowerment taking place, but rather a new kind of empowerment. Through Cued Speech students at ISD are discovering a new way to perceive spoken language and make connections to literacy.

"Background Information regarding Cued Speech"

Covell's description of Cued Speech shows that he does not really understand what Cued Speech is. Cued Speech is not based on sound, but rather based on the phonemes of spoken language. People do not need hearing in order to comprehend cues. It does not matter how much hearing an individual has for one to use Cued Speech. The majority of native cuers in the United States are those who have severe or profound hearing loss. Additionally, many native deaf cuers are also fluent signers and members of the deaf and hard of hearing community. 

Covell also demonstrates a limited understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which includes cued language services as part of the repertoire of services for children with hearing loss. Illinois School for the Deaf is actually in compliance by providing access to all communication modalities in the form of sign language, spoken language, and cued language.

Background on Visual Phonics

Visual Phonics is considered to be a tool for providing visual access to spoken language phonemes. Some preliminary research has indicated that it benefits students for decoding skills. However the research on Visual Phonics does not address higher literacy skills such as inferencing and overall reading comprehension, which is more a function of overall language skills than a function of basic reading skills.

Visual Phonics does not break down phonemes into consonants and vowels like Cued Speech does so this might be one of the root causes in why Visual Phonics does not lend itself well to reading instruction programs as those programs move beyond basic decoding skills. Furthermore, Visual Phonics has been proven to be incapable of serving as a communication mode since it cannot convey spoken language in a fluent and accurate manner in real time.

Data-Driven Decisions and Evidence-Based Practices  

Let's go back to 2007 to see how Cued Speech became part of ISD's curriculum.

In 2007, the literacy researcher came to ISD to introduce Direct Instruction and Visual Phonics. There was a conversation at the administrative level that took place on whether to use Cued Speech or Visual Phonics. At the time, the administrative decision was made to go with Visual Phonics and to let teachers bring up Cued Speech on their own if they felt that Visual Phonics was not working for them.

The elementary school started implementing their direct instruction curriculum in 2007, while the high school implemented it in 2008. During the next two and half years, teachers used Visual Phonics in addition to signing for literacy instruction.

Here we'll focus on the high school implementation. In the second year of using direct instruction with high school students, the teachers struggled with using Visual Phonics and using the curriculum with fidelity. 

A side note here is that the literacy researcher noticed that even though the students' decoding skills had improved, their writing skills were not progressing as the teachers had hoped. This was where she made a push for more access to English (through sim-com). The next year, teachers would bring up Cued Speech to address the question of visual access to English.

In early 2010 two high school teachers started discussing how to address their struggles and brought up Cued Speech with administrators and the literacy researcher. They took a workshop at AG Bell Montessori School (AGBMS) in Chicago through Alternatives in Education for the Hearing Impaired (AEHI) and the next school year the teachers implemented a pilot study with one class using Cued Speech and another class using Visual Phonics.

The researcher carried out assessments to track the students' growth in both classes. The data showed a significant difference between both classes with the Cued Speech class doing better on all measures. This motivated the teachers to keep using Cued Speech for the rest of the year. The following year (2011) a certified instructor of Cued Speech from AEHI taught all the high school reading and language teachers how to cue. 

After learning to cue and using Cued Speech in the classroom, the consensus from the high school teachers was that they liked it and wanted to keep using it. At this time, the elementary school teachers had not yet received any training for Cued Speech.

The next school year, Hilary Franklin came to ISD to teach the rest of the teachers. A well-respected individual in the deaf and interpreting communities, she holds a Bachelor's degree in Public Policy with an education specialization and a Master of Arts in American Sign Language as a Foreign Language. She has also worked as a deaf interpreter, and has been very involved with the Potomac Chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (PCRID). Hilary, who is profoundly deaf and a native cuer and near-native signer, was asked to not only teach two classes (one to the high school teachers, one to the elementary level teachers), but also to present about Cued Speech and respond to questions from the ISD community. 

Now Cued Speech is considered to be part of literacy instruction from preschool to high school. Today there are classrooms where Cued Speech is used as a communication modality, while in other classrooms Cued Speech is used to supplement literacy instruction.

Parents (both deaf and hearing) are requesting classes for learning to cue and requesting to put Cued Speech on their children's IEPs. The fact is that parents are recognizing Cued Speech as being beneficial for their children's education.

Cued Speech also supports ISD's policy of language separation, preserving ASL as an intact signed language while still providing access to English. ISD's case presents a rationale for a new approach in bilingual education that includes Cued Speech for purposes of English language instruction.

In the end there is no crisis at Illinois School for the Deaf. There is no systematic discrimination and oppression taking place. American Sign Language is still considered to be an integral part of ISD and the school continues to support students in learning ASL. Yet, there is a new sense of empowerment taking place for those who are still acquiring and learning English as a language.

The students at ISD will have the final say in this matter when they graduate and go on to pursue their dreams.

*** This article has been checked for accuracy by different sources ***


Candy said...

This is a very late comment.

Today I saw among a few of my FB friends commenting on the new superintendent of ISD (IL)and a few cheered, said, long live ASL, out with Cued Speech. I understand that there are community members that do not understand the logic of having CS at ISD and some actually think it's replacing ASL which is not the case.

Now, my question is, since the new superintendent is deaf, was a former principal of CSDR, and a former teacher at MSSD, does this mean she will stop Cued Speech at ISD? Or, rather how will her new position affect Cued Speech at ISD, do you know?

Aaron R. said...


Good question. It's my understanding that there are already students who have added Cued Speech to their IEPs, so it would be difficult for the superintendent to make a case for removing Cued Speech when the preliminary results have been encouraging.

I'm sure she was already aware of the pilot study with Cued Speech at ISD, so I don't think she would serve as a barrier to the continued use of Cued Speech at ISD.