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Deaf education

ToD with deaf child, St Roch's School, Glasgow
For a number of years, I have been working on a deaf education project with Rachel O'Neill at the University of Edinburgh.

The project is predominantly focused on early years, primary and secondary education. It also considers language, particularly in the context of bilingualism, drawing direct comparisons between Welsh and Gaelic with that of British Sign Language (BSL). Our first report, The impact of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 on deaf education contributed to the Scottish Government's review of the first national BSL plan. The follow-up report: Deaf Education in Scotland and Wales: Attitudes to British Sign Language in deaf education compared to Gaelic and Welsh, compares the impact of BSL legislation and curriculum change on deaf children's education in Scotland and Wales, and explores the different approaches to minority language revitalisation in education systems. 

It is clear that the provision of deaf education in the United Kingdom is not consistent across the four nations. In Scotland, deaf education is underpinned by the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 and its associated national and local plans and in Wales, BSL is part of its new curriculum. In Northern Ireland and England, however, no legislation or policy exist with regard to the inclusion of BSL in deaf education, although the BSL Act 2022 does bring the Department of Education within its purview, at least in England.

Despite these marked differences at national policy level, there are a number of consistencies: the shortage of qualified teachers of deaf children and young people, the lack of BSL teachers, language attitudes at national and local level and the limited resources available for the teaching of BSL within school curricula.

The prevailing view is that a deaf child should receive a mainstream education with the expectation that they should learn the monoglot language with the assistance of audiological solutions such as hearing aids, cochlear implants etc. and speech therapy if necessary.  A deaf child should only learn a sign language if the main approach does not work for a specific reason; perhaps the deaf child was late diagnosed and their language development delayed, they have additional learning needs, or if they are a child of deaf adults who use sign language.  What is less common is the bilingual approach, that is, learning sign language and the monoglot language.

The benefits of a bilingual education are well documented and provide a number of benefits for deaf children:
  • improved language development;
  • increased access to information;
  • improved social skills;
  • increased cultural awareness; and
  • enhanced employability.
In short, a bilingual education in the monoglot language and sign language can provide numerous benefits, and is above all essential to support deaf children's language, academic, and social development.

So, why does such a bilingual education not happen as a matter of course?  Our research clearly found that health professionals often have a crucial role in deaf children's education, and they are often the ones who identify that the children are deaf, and above all, provide support and guidance to families and educators in helping deaf children to succeed.  Given that they are, above all, medical practitioners, their primary focus will be on medical intervention, as early as possible, and the provision of hearing aids, cochlear implants, or other assistive technologies.  This emphasis can sometimes be at the expense of language acquisition. 

Health professionals are not experts in language development, and therefore will not explain to parents of deaf children the benefits of a bilingual education.  Instead, they often see sign language as a threat to the acquisition of the monoglot language, not realising that it can actually support it and in fact achieve successful language outcomes for the deaf child.  In contrast, the benefits of bilingual education are clearly explained to parents of children in the context of Welsh and Gaelic by health professionals, particularly midwives and health visitors.  This has led to an increasing number of children entering Welsh- or Gaelic-medium education.

It is clear, therefore, that in order for parents of deaf children to become aware of the benefits of acquiring a sign language alongside the monoglot language, the health professionals most likely to be involved in deaf children's welfare should be educated in a similar fashion to that for Welsh and Gaelic.

We are now working with the Welsh and Scottish Governments and key stakeholders with a view to changing the status quo for the benefit of deaf children in Wales and Scotland. 


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