Alabama bill highlights latest battle in deaf culture wars

By Hanno van der Bijl

Advocates for the deaf are at odds with each other over an Alabama bill that seeks to prepare deaf and hard of hearing children for kindergarten.

“This bill,” says advocate Leigh Leak, “is yet another battle in a very old turf war that exists between the deaf culture and what I will call the ‘hearing deaf’ culture.”

Advocates in the deaf culture are proposing HB 253, which is aimed to help deaf kids who are falling through the cracks, while advocates in the “hearing deaf” culture are afraid the bill will force children who use spoken language to learn American Sign Language.

“Of course, I’ve realized that there appears to be a deep divide in the deaf community, and I knew that — maybe only had a surface knowledge of that prior to introducing this bill,” says bill sponsor Rep. Margie Wilcox, R-Mobile. “But now I feel like I’ve been baptized in it.” 

The deaf community uses American Sign Language, which was developed in the 19th century. The “hearing deaf” community uses listening and spoken language strategies.

Outside of schools like the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB), deaf students rely on interpreters. Hearing children are fitted with high-powered hearing aids or implanted with cochlear implants that, together with audio-verbal therapy, enable them to attend mainstream schools.

Leak’s 21-year-old daughter was implanted with cochlear implants as a child and is now fluent in English and Spanish. She opposes the bill.

“All children are special and all children are deserving of the best education we can give them, but the truth is, HB 253 bill contains nothing that would improve or enhance our state’s ability to track, assess or deliver a better education to its students who are deaf and hard of hearing.”

The bill says Alabama agencies must decide on language development milestones and monitor the progress of deaf and hard of hearing children from birth to age five in consultation with AIDB.

Proponents of the bill say…

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