Why One Should Not Compare Apples to Oranges: Deaf Students and Hearing Students

apples and oranges.jpgBack to School: With September underway, Deaf students are once again heading back to schools and universities and once again, on the front burner, are concerns about Deaf education, student achievement scores, reading levels, and other related topics. It’s inevitable that comparisons will be made between Deaf students’ performances and those of their hearing peers.

Apples and Oranges: When an achievement “gap” between Deaf and hearing students is identified, panic ensues, fingers point, the ASL-versus-oralism-versus-cued-speech debate is inflamed, and people begin to wonder what is wrong with our Deaf students/teachers/schools/etc. Without a doubt, the Deaf education system, as is true of any education system, especially those serving minority students, has plenty of room for improvement. Comparing Deaf students to hearing students, however, is like comparing apples to oranges.

As Raychelle Harris wrote eloquently on the ongoing tendency to compare Deaf and hearing educational practices:

Why would we want Deaf schools, including Gallaudet University, to be the same as other hearing schools and universities? Our brains are wired differently, we use sign language, our experience is different. Why do we want to be like other universities? What’s wrong with being different? Why do we feel the need to conform to other university practices to validate our own practices at Gallaudet? This way of thinking: If they do this, then it’s ok for us to do this. If they don’t, then we cannot – is evidence of colonialism at its best. Our practices can and should be innovative, we have so much to teach the world. (reprinted with permission)

We agree. Yes, it’s a big hearing world out there, but who made hearing people’s language and culture the gold standard by which Deaf people’s performance must be measured? Why do some Deaf schools insist on following hearing schools’ curricula, relegating ASL and Deaf Studies classes to once-weekly occurrences? This quite clearly sends the message that anything Deaf-related is less important or valued than anything hearing-related. Schools should be meeting Deaf students’ needs, instead of trying to mold Deaf students to meet hearing people’s needs.

Selective Respect: It is acceptable and even considered exotic for a hearing British professional working in America, to speak with a British accent and write using British spellings such as “recognise” or “colour”. Why, then, is it a travesty for a Deaf person to speak with a Deaf accent or write English with second-language accent? Why are British people’s accents are more respected than those of Deaf people? Some people might argue that British people use “proper” English, but if that is the case, who decided that the American versions of “recognize” and “color” are acceptable, and not examples of “bad English”? Deaf people, and even other minorities such as African Americans, are quick to be criticized when our English is accented.

Meaningless Scores: In the same way that a psychological assessment score for a Deaf person can mean something very different than what it means for a hearing person, so do SAT scores and other achievement scores mean different things for Deaf students than they do for hearing students. More and more hearing universities give little weight to SAT scores these days, anyway, recognizing that they are poor predictors of achievement. It is unfair to look at Deaf and hearing scores side by side and come to the conclusion that Deaf students are less intelligent or less educated than hearing students. The types of questions and the cultural biases inherent in many testing instruments mean that they are not even measuring what they are supposedly measuring.

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