The Hearing Impaired Student
Here is a policy question about education that can be brought down to earth. A deaf student was admitted to the college where I taught. This was at a time when there was a big push on to “mainstream” disabled people, which means place them in settings as close to normal as possible and try to make up for their deficiencies by providing them with special services. The director of the mainstreaming program was a friend of mine who thought I would be fair in deciding whether the girl in question actually had met the requirements in Freshman Sociology or whether she was just being passed so that the buck could stop somewhere else, even though that created a problem for the college in that it would be difficult to pass her through her first few courses and then say she couldn’t do the work to graduate. Everybody was afraid that there would be a law suit if the matter wasn’t properly handled.
The girl had a research aide who came with her to take notes and help her record the lecture. The girl’s attendance was very good. I also gave her extra time to write exams even though I did not know why her disability would require that. At about the same time, I had a blind woman as a student who did very well even if she had to repeatedly remind me to say out loud everything I was writing on the board. We have known for a long time that deafness is far more isolating than blindness, even though that might seem contrary to common sense.
The exams the deaf girl wrote were very clearly failing efforts. She did not understand the material and could repeat very few facts and so show familiarity with the material whether or not she understood it. So I flunked her, knowing that would be the end of this experiment at mainstreaming.
The girl’s mother came to see me. Ordinarily, I would not discuss a student with a parent because college students are to be regarded as adults capable of managing their own activities. I remember a student who came to me to ask permission to cut class to go to a wedding. I said that was up to him. He was the adult and had to make his own decision. Another student wanted to know if I needed him to submit a doctor’s note for an absence. I said no; if he missed material, it was up to him to find a way to make it up or come speak to me in my office so that we could go over the material.
But, as I say, I spoke to the mother of the deaf student. I said to her that one way I decide if someone understands the material in an essay answer is how they handle connectives: do they use “but” or “because” or “therefore”. Also, do they make generalizations into which they fit the particulars? Abstract words and sentences show that the person is making inferences and tying together disparate bits of material. That is not the only thing I look for when grading essay questions, but it is certainly one of them. The mother said that an inability to master connective language was part of the disability and should be excused for that reason. Deaf people, she said, have difficulties with that kind of abstract language. I do not know whether, in fact, that is the case, but I do know that there is not much to sociology if you cannot make connections. Unlike on “Sesame Street”, you have to do more than identify which item is different; you have to provide a plausible explanation as to why some things are the same and some things are different: why a riot is not a revolution, why an ethnic group is not a social class. The deaf girl was not carrying out her part of the deal, which was, by one means or another, to learn sociology.
I do not think I was being harsh and I may have spared the student the additional pain that would come from having flunked out a year or two further on in her college career. But, on the other hand, there are certainly other students who didn’t do a great job who slipped through the cracks and got passing grades even if in retrospect they shouldn’t have. Some athletes come to mind. They did the minimum. They showed up in class because their coaches insisted. All they cared about was retaining eligibility. What harm would it have done if this student slid through, passed on all along the way, and so getting whatever it was she could get out of being in college? But that is what teachers do: they assign grades as well as teach, and so sometimes, especially when they are being relied on to make an “honest” call, they bring down the hammer. It keeps the system honest, some would say. I, for one, think that the only students for whom grades matter are those who work themselves up from a B to a B+. You can tell in that range whether progress is being made. Lower than that, and it is all swamps of equality in performance and above the B levels grades become less and less accurate measures of what a student has learned. An A- student may have gained real insight while an A student is a better test taker. I would like to see those two functions of education separated from one another, and that may be on the way with the availability of very good computerized testing.
Sidestep the inevitable uncertainties of these matters concerning grading as an assessment of learning and whether grading is not just an arbitrary activity that happens to be the coin of the realm in education, grades worth something, like dollars, because of the prestige of the institution that creates them. Also put aside a utopian extreme: no grading or only A grades, as seems to happen for more and more students at Ivy League universities, just so everybody can have the college experience: four years of exposure at close quarters to peers and regular interchanges with adults who will address late adolescents as if they were fully adult. And put aside the other extreme: only very few students going to college (or high school) because standards have been raised so high. Accept grading and the possibility of failure as just the customs of the very peculiar institution known as education, whether or not it serves any function for society.
Instead, turn to what is more readily analyzed. The incident of the deaf student captures a moment in what we might call the Disability Revolution. That revolution, which peaked with the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in …, is a social revolution in the sense that it is a reordering of the prestige of status groups within a society. It comes about through protest, education, legislation, and eventuates in something that might rightly be called a winning over of the hearts and minds of the general population. The disability movement drew its inspiration, as did the Women’s Movement and the Gay Rights Movement, from the Civil Rights Movement, which had, in its turn, drawn considerably in its imagery and tactics and even its leadership from the Union Movement of the Thirties.
Mainstreaming was one of the favored objectives of the Disabilities Movement. The mentally ill would be moved out of mental hospitals into supervised residences along regular city blocks so that they could mingle with “normal” people and they could manage to do that so long as they remained on their medications. The wheelchair bound would get elevators and ramps so that they could use the subway and enter buildings previously inaccessible. There would be special education for the developmentally disabled and “normal” classrooms would have their “quota” of slow learning children.
The problem is with how far you can mainstream and how many disabilities are subject to mainstreaming. The severely retarded or incapacitated do need residential care. Many of the terminally ill do need hospice care so as to manage their rack of pain. The wheelchair bound, who seem to be closest to being like able bodied people, are the main beneficiaries of mainstreaming, while those who are deformed or seriously debilitated are not. Old people can stay spry by walking to an old age center, and it is not much to ask a teenager to give up a seat on the bus to make the commute there easier, but the public will put up with just so much. Disfigured war veterans were turned away from Washington D. C. theatres during World War II.
The problem here may be that there is no way to restore a “normal” life to the hearing impaired. They do better in segregated learning communities where they can use sign language unless they use implants that do allow some hearing but that is a measure which is opposed by those in favor of thinking of the deaf as just another ethnicity. There may be a technological fix rather than a sociological one. Better genetic screening may pick up which fetuses will be deaf. Then the parents will be faced with a choice about whether the pregnancy should be terminated. You might not want people to do away with less than perfect children on the grounds that none of us are perfect and a pretty good life is better than no life at all, but parents do seem to be making that choice with regard to fetuses that have Down’s Syndrome, and so that disability may soon disappear. Overt social selection is every bit as cruel and unyielding as natural selection.
The deaf girl who was my student got caught up and had to suffer the consequences of her mother’s very well motivated attempt to provide her with every possible advantage. Her mother was no different from the black mother who, back in the bad old days of the Forties, told the principal of her daughter’s otherwise all white elementary school that Aunt Jemima might be an American cultural image, but that he should find some other American cultural image for her daughter to play in the school play. You press the system to its limits because that is the only way to know what the limits are, whether those limits are cultural or circumstantial. As a sociologist, I always try to put an event in context so that its moral weight is subsumed by its historical and situational circumstances, and that applies to the hearing impaired as well as to members of any other social group. We are all victims of our circumstances. That does not mean, however, that sociologists are immune from recognizing that general trends apply to particular people at particular times and so can cause them pain.