(Missouri) Teachers cite problems at School for the Deaf

8 01 2009

News from Columbia Tribute

Wednesday, January 7, 2008

By JANESE HEAVIN of the Tribune’s staff

Imagine a student walking into an American school where teachers don’t know how to speak English, and you might have an idea of what it’s like on the Missouri School for the Deaf campus, some employees there say.

A group of disgruntled employees say they’re concerned that more teachers and residential advisers at the Fulton campus are being hired without being proficient in American Sign Language. Technically, employees at the K-12 school have three years to reach whatever level of proficiency in sign language they need for their jobs, but some say that rule isn’t followed and that some veteran employees are still not signing proficiently.

Dubbing themselves “No Deaf Child Left Behind,” a group of 15 employees, along with an interpreter, visited the Tribune last week to express those concerns. They asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. However, they allowed Missouri National Education Association representative Don Salcedo to speak on their behalf.

“The whole single issue seems to be the lack of communication, or the miscommunication,” Salcedo said. “Many of the employees at the Missouri School for the Deaf are hearing, not deaf, so it’s very natural for them to speak rather than sign when they’re talking to each other. This has led to some of the employees not using sign language like they should.”

The Missouri School for the Deaf, founded in 1851, is a state-funded residential K-12 program that serves roughly 100 deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

The communication gap causes several problems, some deaf staff members say. In some cases, the employees said, teachers aren’t signing well enough for students to understand homework assignments. And other times, they said, hearing teachers attempt to follow a conversation between deaf employees but misunderstand the signs.

“Because many of the hearing staff is not proficient in sign language, they’ll observe two deaf employees conversing but not fully understand what’s being said,” Salcedo said. Hearing teachers then repeat misinformation, he said, “and employees are reprimanded for saying something they didn’t say.”

School Superintendent Barbara Garrison said she is aware of the frustrations and cited a specific incident where a few students complained about staff members speaking without signing. She said that particular incident was resolved.

“My experience with the deaf community at large is that when incidents like this occur, a simple reminder is all that is necessary to rectify the frustration,” Garrison said in an e-mailed response to Tribune questions. “The deaf community generally is very patient, supportive and willing helpers to those who are attempting to learn the language.”

But the concerned employees contend some co-workers aren’t even attempting to learn sign language. Instead, they said, hearing teachers or residential advisers call on them to help when they have problems communicating with deaf students. The employees said they don’t mind helping out but it’s frustrating when it happens repeatedly with teachers who don’t seem to be putting effort into learning sign language.

Employees at the school are expected to meet certain sign proficiency requirements based on their job duties. Teachers, for instance, are required to achieve an advanced level of proficiency, and maintenance workers need only know how to sign well enough to “survive” on campus, Garrison said. An employee has three years to reach his or her required level of communication, but the school superintendent can extend that deadline.

Twenty-one of the 32 teachers on staff have met the required level for their positions, and 23 of the campus’s 52 residential advisers have reached the necessary proficiency level, Garrison said.

The school does not favor deaf applicants over those who can hear, she said, although candidates have an edge if they are proficient in sign language. “We’d love to hire employees that already know how to sign,” Garrison said, “but the truth is there just aren’t enough qualified applicants that can sign, regardless of whether they can hear.”

The deaf employees don’t buy it, Salcedo said. He stopped short of accusing the school of being biased toward applicants who can hear but said “it sure seems that way.”

Copyright © 2009 The Columbia Daily Tribune.