Pronews 7 Investigates: Teaching the Deaf in AISD
by David Grasso-Ortega
October 1, 2014
AMARILLO, TX — Right now, the Deaf and American Sign Language (ASL) community is greatly concerned about the Amarillo Independent School District’s (AISD) policy on not using ASL as the primary language of interaction for Deaf students in the classroom.
AISD, instead of using ASL uses Morphemic Sign System (MSS) to instruct Deaf students. AISD says MSS is English and promotes reading and speech skills, but critics said it is isolating and limiting Deaf student’s ability to thrive outside of the walls of their classroom.
Pronews 7 was there when Debby Thomas, an AISD teacher, was energetically in a classroom at Lamar elementary. The class was primarily hearing students, but also included Deaf kids. What critics are concerned about is that Thomas isn’t using ASL.
“The reason why we use coded English is our kids when they read and write and speak are replicating the exact English on our hands, so they’re hearing and it’s coming out of our mouth and they’re reading our lips,” said Sherry Wittlake of AISD. “We use total communication.”
AISD says that this helps with English skills, as speaking often occurs while signing. However, for the Deaf community, the use of MSS is upsetting. They claim that ASL is what the Deaf children need to be communicating in, as it is the way Deaf people communicate all over the world.
“Almost everyone knows ASL,” said Ricky Harris speaking to Pronews 7 in ASL. “It’s so easy to connect. It is so smooth and clean you can acquire fluency and make immediate friendships. ASL is wonderful; it’s amazing.”
Several community interpreters told Pronews 7 that they believe that not using ASL is permanently harming local kids, because they graduate without fluency in the common language of the Deaf.
“Kids are going out into the world without a language,” said Cory LeJeune, a local interpreter. “They’re not fluent in English because they physically can’t and in some cases they‘ll tell kids their voices are understandable when they’re not. Because they’re not taught in ASL they’re not fluent in ASL either, so they are literally are going into the world with no language.”
The school district said that using MSS is about making sure their students are literate, and that if parents want their kids to be instructed in ASL, they have that choice.
“If a parent comes to us and wants ASL and that’s their choice, we will absolutely give them ASL,” said Wittlake.
AISD said that choosing an instructional language all boils down to individual choice and needs when formulating their individual education plan. Disabilities are often varied, and sometimes the kids have some hearing ability, and can be able to be part of the hearing world.
“We have children that have deafness as their only disability, we certainly have children that have deafness with other disabilities,” said Kelly Morrison, AISD’s special education director. “We have to take the individual child and his or her needs into account.”
The ASL and Deaf community said the evidence isn’t there for MSS, and that the school district is mistaken.
“Their philosophy is that this will improve writing reading and voicing skills, but I don’t understand why they are continuing with this when it is not even working,” said Harris, in ASL.
“If my child was Deaf, I would never send them to AISD as long as MSS is used,” said LeJeune. ” It causes damage that can’t be fixed.”
We spoke to one former AISD employee through Skype who has since left Amarillo who said MSS is severely limiting Deaf students.
“A student who learns MSS and doesn’t really get exposed to ASL, a Deaf student, they’re kind of locked into Amarillo,” said Scott Snyder. “MSS is not really used outside of Amarillo, anywhere else. ”
AISD said they’re one of many schools in Texas that uses MSS, while critics say that the other schools use MSS in conjunction with ASL for instruction. Tomorrow, we look at what the National Association for the Deaf has to said about non-ASL instruction, and why AISD says that MSS helps their students keep up with their hearing peers in a changing world.