The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) promotes and safeguards the right of all Deaf people to quality education, starting at birth and throughout life. As for all learners, Deaf children have the same right to education and full access to quality education.
The right to education is clearly and explicitly stated in the new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention states that states shall take appropriate measures for facilitating the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community. Governments shall ensure that education of deaf and deaf blind persons is delivered in the most appropriate languages and in environments which maximize academic and social development. The governments shall also take appropriate measures to employ teachers who are qualified in sign language.
Education is a basic necessity for all people. Education is recognised as a primary means for gaining independence, citizenship rights, appropriate employment, economic power and self-empowerment. WFD supports the United Nation’s (UN) position that all people, regardless of origin, gender, age, disability and creed, have the right to a meaningful education. The UN and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) advocate education as a human right for all people.
Like all children, Deaf children must have access to equal and quality education. Deaf children have the right to expect that their needs and human, linguistic and educational rights are respected and supported by educational authorities, in full compliance with international policy statements, national legislation and national curricula. Deaf children are born with the same basic capacities for learning and language as all children; they can and should reach their full potential with appropriate, visual, quality educational programmes and support.
WFD advocates, promotes and safeguards educational rights for all Deaf people of all ages. The term ‘Deaf people’ includes a wide spectrum of people with hearing differences from moderate to profound, from various backgrounds, races, ages, creeds, ethnicities, and philosophies and with different levels of linguistic variables.
WFD emphasizes respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity as humanity as it is stated in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Deaf children are part of human diversity and they are entitled to respect for their evolving capacities and respect for their right to preserve their identities. These principles shall include in all spheres of education of deaf children: school legislation, curricular, learning materials, teacher teaching, school subjects and school practices.
Regardless of the age of the learner, there are some common denominators that must be considered in planning and implementing successful educational programmes for and with Deaf students. This specific paper will focus on the educational needs and rights of Deaf youth.
WFD embraces these following human rights and educational principles:
- Like all people, Deaf people have the right to full access to quality education.
- Deaf people are primarily visual beings, whose eyes are their portal to the world of information and knowledge. Thus, sign language and visual strategies must be made available to Deaf people as a birthright. (Deafblind people may predominantly depend
on their tactile sense and have the right to learn sign language, Braille and mobility skills.)
- Education is in itself not a place or a goal, but a continuous, life-long process enabling one to acquire multiple skills needed to become an independent, educated, employed, self-actualising, participating and contributing citizen of one’s community and society.
Furthermore, WFD takes the position that to deny Deaf children access to a quality education and their bill of rights are tantamount to child abuse.
The Current Situation
Studies by the WFD reveal that the enrolment rate and literacy achievement of Deaf children is far below the average for the population at large. Illiteracy and semi-literacy are serious problems among Deaf people. Without appropriate education, advancement in society as an independent, employed, contributing citizen becomes problematic. Without a strong educational and language base, it is difficult to succeed in today’s communities and marketplaces, and in the world of technology and information.
WFD takes the unequivocal position that there is no excuse for this deplorable situation, since Deaf children have the same innate intellectual, social and emotional capacities, as do all children.
Moreover, even in industrialised countries, the majority of current Deaf education programmes do not respect the linguistic human rights of Deaf children. Indeed, most Deaf education programmes fall into the language deprivation category described in theoretical models of education of linguistic minorities. “Language deprivation” for Deaf people means ignoring the use of sign language as a basic communication means, as a language of instruction and as a school subject. Following this, the linguistic human rights of Deaf children are grossly violated in educational programmes all over the world.
There are several salient findings derived from research studies regarding educational development, language acquisition and Deaf children:
- Deaf students learn best through visual modalities and depend on sign language.
- The brain, without adequate stimulation during the critical learning years, ages 0-3, may atrophy as much as 30%. Due to insufficient family and community support during this critical time, Deaf children are needlessly stalled in language acquisition until they commence formal schooling.
- Deaf children of Deaf adults generally have a head start in language acquisition, communication development and educational prowess, and do well in later life as employees, citizens and leaders.
- Literacy and language does not equal speech and communication. Language development must precede everything else, speech development can occur later. Conversely, early speech development alone will not guarantee language and literacy skills.
- Sign language is a valid linguistic means of conveying thoughts, ideas and emotions. Hearing babies whose parents use sign language have a head start in communicating with their parents. Increasing numbers of hearing people study and utilise sign language annually.
- Programmes utilising bilingual or multilingual approaches, and employing qualified professionals, provide Deaf children with a strong language base, which equips them better for success in the broad range of educational subjects.
- Deaf children who are in school are often in programmes that do not meet their needs, educationally, socially or emotionally. These include oral programmes that exclude the Deaf learner’s right to visual access to education, professionals fluent in the sign language used by the Deaf community, and supportive, enriching and appropriate environments. Such programmes fail to meet the Deaf child’s needs and goals, and are detrimental to the Deaf child’s educational development, self-esteem and overall well-being.
- Early educational intervention, bilingual/multilingual programmes and qualified professionals and role models enable Deaf learners to achieve full intellectual, social and emotional development, and enable them to reach their full potential as human beings, in all aspects of life.
Linguistic Human Rights
The UN supports the rights of students from minority cultures, specifically the right to education in their mother tongue. This includes the right of Deaf children to the sign language of their country. Previously mentioned new Convention emphasizes that without respecting linguistic rights of the deaf students, their human right can not be fulfilled.
Linguistic human rights are an essential component of human rights, and central to language acquisition. Such language acquisition is required for full access to education.
WFD supports the right of Deaf children to acquire full mastery of their sign language as their ‘mother tongue’, as well as to learn the language(s) used by their family and community.
Deaf children must also have access to adult role models fluent in sign language.
The realisation of linguistic human rights is linked to the realisation of basic human rights to education, freedom of thought and expression, enjoyment of an adequate standard of living, protection from all forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation, and freedom from subjection to torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. It is the mastery of language(s) that enables a child to express her/his needs and desires, and gives him/her the tool to protect and to assert him/herself as a human being.
Many policy-makers today strongly support full inclusion in education, which they interpret to mean full-scale mainstreaming of all disabled students with all students in regular schools near their homes.
While such a goal may be generally appropriate for many disabled learners who can hear and interact with their peers and teachers, WFD has serious differences regarding implementation of this concept for Deaf learners.
WFD holds that the least restrictive environment for a Deaf learner is whatever is the most enabling environment for that learner. Full inclusion for a Deaf learner means a totally supportive, signing and student-centred environment. This permits the learner to develop to his/her full educational, social and emotional potential. This is stated also in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Otherwise, inclusion as a simple placement in a regular school without meaningful interaction with classmates and professionals at all times is tantamount to exclusion of the Deaf learner from education and society. In such environments, the Deaf child is physically present but may be mentally and socially absent.
Statement of Rights and Recommendations
To ensure that the educational rights of Deaf learners are fulfilled, WFD therefore:
- Reaffirms its position that all Deaf people, including Deaf children, have the right to full access to quality education through visual modes, including indigenous sign languages. This position is supported by several international conventions of the UN.
- Supports early identification of Deaf infants and youth, followed promptly with sign language environments and educational intervention strategies and programmes, in partnerships between families, Deaf adults and professionals.
- Calls upon governments to ensure full and equal access to and educational success for Deaf learners based on regular education goals, standards and curricula.
- States, furthermore, that such curricula should provide the opportunity for students to learn in and study both their local/national sign language and the local (written) language as academic subjects.
Calls upon national and regional/provincial governments to:
- To sign and ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and modify their education legislation to follow this Convention.
- Put into practice policies or guidelines regarding early identification of and intervention for Deaf children that maximise their visual capabilities and sign language.
- Legalise sign language and quality education for Deaf people of all ages.
- Provide the resources necessary for the development of effective programmes for teaching sign language and Deaf Studies (history, culture, etc.) to involved people, such as:
- Families of Deaf children
- Teachers of Deaf children, administrators and other professionals
- Professionals, including doctors and therapists, for preschool Deaf children
- Interested parties such as but not limited to community service providers, interpreters, and other students
- Provide support for programmes for Deaf people to receive training and become employed as teachers, educational professionals and members of educational teams.
- Establish high standards for quality education programmes and outcomes, from early childhood to professional education, for all Deaf people equal to that for all people; implement assessment and monitoring programmes to ensure that each learner makes appropriate progress.
- Ensure that Deaf learners who may be placed in mainstream educational settings have access to the services of educated, trained and qualified sign language interpreters, other needed support services, Deaf peers and role models, and full participation in both the educative and co-curricular processes.
Support further research into:
- The development of strategies and valid instruments for teaching and assessing features in indigenous sign languages and the development of fluency in sign language.
- The benefits of acquiring an education using direct communication pedagogies, versus indirectly through a third-party interpreter.
Joutselainen, Marjo: WFD Survey of Deaf People in the Developing World; World Federation of the Deaf, 1991
Mahshie, Shawn Neal: Educating Deaf Children Bilingually; Pre-College Programmes, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC, 1995
UNESCO: The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education; Adopted by the World Conference on Special Needs Education: Access and Quality, Salamanca, Spain, June 1994
UNESCO: The Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning and Agenda for the Future, CONFINTEA V, Hamburg, Germany, July 1997
United Nations: Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN General Assembly 1959 and 1989
United Nations: Declaration on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN General Assembly 22 February 2001, under the heading of “Children with Disabilities”
United Nations: Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted by the UN General Assembly 18 December 1992
United Nations: The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities: adopted by the UN General Assembly 20 December 1993 (particularly Article 6.1 – 6.9)
United Nations: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly 10 December 1948
United Nations: The Charter of Fundamental Rights, Articles 21, 24 and 26, 28 September 2000
World Federation of the Deaf: Report on the Status of Sign Language; WFD Scientific Commission on Sign Language (Supalla, T.; Bergmann, R.; Denmark, C.; Jokinen, M.; Schroeder, O-I; and Suwanarat, M), 1993
World Federation of the Deaf: Report from the Commission on Deaf Education (International President M. Jokinen, National President G. Leigh), XIII World Congress of the WFD, July 1999
UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2006