The Chickens are Coming Home to Roost

Last Friday, my daughter came home from the school for the deaf she attends to tell me about a supply teacher her class had that day who, according to my daughter, couldn’t sign and who pulled down her mask in order to compel another student to lipread her. When the other student told the teacher in ASL that she needed to keep her mask up, she didn’t understand him. When my daughter followed up by voicing the other student’s utterance, the teacher pretended to drink from a water bottle.

In addition to the several layers of violence inflicted by a nondeaf adult on deaf children, what this episode underscores is the grave shortage of signing teachers at schools for the deaf (as the one place where these kinds of teachers are supposed to be available). The COVID-19 pandemic and the Ontario government’s construction of virtual schooling that is separate from in-person learning has also made this shortage more visible. This is because the Provincial and Demonstration Schools Branch is unable to provide signing teachers for at least some virtual school classrooms (as well as for some in-person classrooms, as my daughter’s experience shows). In order to staff teaching positions in virtual school, the PDSB has deployed home visiting teachers who are used to promoting and working only in spoken English and who are unprepared to teach signing deaf students online. As a consequence, the PDSB’s roster of sign language interpreters has also been deployed for virtual school and is thus unavailable to interpret for deaf students in classrooms such as the one where my daughter and other signing deaf students were present last Friday.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are not enough signing teachers of the deaf and not enough services to support signing deaf children in the classroom. This should have been apparent in 2002, when Dr. David Mason, the first and only deaf full-time faculty member in York University’s deaf education program, retired. This early retirement, soon after Dr. Mason’s successful appeal of a bid by deaf education program faculty to deny him tenure, followed years of tormenting and bullying by the same program faculty who are currently employed in ensuring signing deaf people don’t become teachers, and ensuring nondeaf teachers of the deaf don’t gain enough ASL proficiency to teach in it. All of this is chronicled in my paper Sign Language Planning and Policy in Ontario Teacher Education. During the eleven years of Dr. Mason’s tenure, three to eight deaf teacher candidates were accepted each year at York, and these graduates went on to fill teaching and administrative positions at schools for the deaf and in some school boards across Ontario. When he left, these numbers declined precipitously so that today, barely any new ASL-proficient deaf or nondeaf teacher candidates graduate from York.

It is ironic that the decline in qualified teachers of the deaf is accompanied by a steep rise in ASL education for nondeaf learners. Instead of focusing on an ASL language arts curriculum for deaf children as first-language learners, work that began in 1991, deaf teachers from the provincial schools are currently employed in developing an ASL curriculum for second-language learners for the Ministry of Education. Doubtless this curriculum, unlike the one for deaf children, will be published and shared widely across the province. Whenever I remark on this irony in the presence of a deaf teacher, the first thing I am told is that the L2 curriculum is “also for deaf children who learn ASL as a second language!” This statement, made repeatedly to me by licensed deaf teachers of the deaf with decades of classroom experience, leaves me incredulous. As if it has been empirically established by the same group of teachers that a majority of deaf learners in school board programs today have the same first-language development as nondeaf learners in English and/or French or another spoken language. As if there is no such thing as language deprivation, including among immigrant, refugee, and minoritized deaf children and youth who make up a significant proportion of deaf students today in both provincial schools and school board programs. As I remarked in my Introduction with Maartje De Meulder to our special issue about ideologies in sign language vitality and revitalization, what seems most prevalent among many deaf children and youth today is often not language shift from a sign language to a dominant spoken language but language shift to partial or no language.

It has become a popular discourse, shared by Gallaudet University president Dr. Roberta Cordano and others, that “everyone” should learn sign language and that this massive effort to teach ASL to nondeaf learners will achieve equity in education and life chances for deaf children and adults. I do not think this will ever be the case. For instance, in my previous university’s modern languages department, there are more ASL students enrolled than students in any other language course, but this does not result in or contribute to an environment where deaf children have access to ASL. I know this because I was unsuccessful in my appeal to the city’s public school board to provide a signing EA or interpreter for my daughter; hence, our departure to a town where a signing deaf school was located. But the same school board established an outside-of-school ASL heritage language class for nondeaf learners overnight. Incidentally, there are also not enough deaf ASL instructors in the region where my former university is located to provide ASL courses for over a thousand university students, resulting in the hiring of nondeaf instructors for most full-time teaching positions. This has a consequential impact on program quality, since acquiring proficiency in a second, minority language in a different modality requires more investment than may be apparent at first glance.

In terms of sign language maintenance and revitalization efforts, it is counterproductive to deploy the relatively few signing deaf adults with teaching licensure in the service of developing curricula and teaching ASL to nondeaf children. While Gerald Roche rightly observes that language endangerment is a result of oppression of speakers and signers, I also think that in the case of deaf communities, minority-language users bear some complicity in their own oppression. In their efforts to achieve legal recognition of sign languages, deaf advocacy organizations can erase diverse sign language varieties. In the excitement of having Ontario government support for teaching ASL, deaf teachers can overlook that their efforts have been diverted to serving the interests of the nondeaf majority. Perhaps it is not having deaf children of their own that leaves some deaf teachers feeling as if they have no skin in the game. Soon, there may be almost no signing teachers of deaf children left. What will we do then?