Thursday, February 17, 2011

Education (Limits)

Recently, I learned that less than a third of my deaf classmates from elementary school went on to college. That is a much lower percentage than for hearing students. That upsets me. College is very important. You need a degree to get a good job. In my experience, college also helps you figure out who you are and what you can contribute to the world.

Why was I one of the exceptions? Why did I go to college when my deaf classmates did not? Let me start at the beginning so you can understand.

When I was in kindergarten, I went to a public school where there was no help for the deaf because the teacher did not really understand the needs of deaf students. I did learn some things, but I was not talking yet so my parents decided to transfer me to another school to try kindergarten again. That school was across the state line in Michigan, about 30 minutes away from our house. It was a regular public school, but they had a deaf program where they had teachers who were specially trained to teach deaf students to speak, read, and write. There were quite a few other deaf students, and we all had the same classes and teachers so it was easy to make friends. The teachers were very helpful and if it was not for them, I would not be able to speak, read, or write as well as I do now.

As I passed through 1st grade to 5th grade, I was starting to learn pretty well, especially in subjects like math and social studies. I began taking a few regular classes with hearing students while taking classes that were hard for me such as reading and writing with deaf students. I was doing Ok with the work in the regular classes, so my parents and I decided it was time to go back to my local public school. I consider myself extremely lucky because my parents took me out of a school with a program specifically for deaf students and put me in a mainstream school where I was the only deaf student. It was a really tough adjustment for me, but I know we made the right choice because it helped prepare me for the real world. I graduated from high school and I am really close to graduating from college (I hope!).

There were several reasons why my parents decided to put me back in the public school with hearing students. I did not understand them at the time because I was younger, but as I grew up, I got curious and wondered. So I asked my parents more about it. I found out they were concerned that the program for the hearing impaired students was too sheltered for me. They wanted me to be successful in the world, so they wanted me to learn with many different people.

From my perspective now, I think they were right. I did not see very many different kinds of people while I was in the program for the hearing impaired. For example, I never met an African-American student. When I changed schools, I saw so many colors and different kinds of people and I had to learn how to talk to them or be around them. Also, the program for the hearing impaired was in a very small town and there were not many opportunities for teenagers. Maybe that is why only two other students of the ten in my class when on to college. They were smart kids, but they could not figure out how to get to college. Some of them started a family really young. Some of them are struggling with jobs.

I worry that keeping deaf students isolated in special programs or schools does not prepare them for college and the real world. The mainstream school was not a perfect solution either. Although I learned a lot in high school, they were not helpful when it came to my deafness. I had trouble getting the services I needed and when it came time for college, the counselors could not help me find the right college with the major I wanted to study and services for the deaf.

I was lucky because my parents wanted me to be able to get the best education possible, so they worked hard to prepare me for college and the real world. They saved money so my brothers and I could go to school and not have to worry about whether we could pay back loans. I know that all parents cannot do that, so I believe schools need to make things better for students who are deaf as well as students who have other disabilities.

Being in the mainstream is the only way to prepare students with disabilities for life in the real world, but being in the mainstream works only if teachers know how to teach all students. The only way to make that happen is to start teaching the students who want to become teachers. All kinds of teachers--elementary, middle, high school, college, community college and more--should learn how to work with students who have special needs. Otherwise, there is no way those students will get the education they need to live up to their potential.

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