GALLAUDET UNIVERSITY officials don't talk much about it publicly, but an internal study revealed that 70 percent of the undergraduates at Washington's liberal arts university for the deaf cannot read a college-level textbook and that employers are increasingly dissatisfied with the English skills of Gallaudet graduates.
To help students improve their reading and writing skills, the university set up a project called English Literacy 2000 and brought me to the campus as a guest speaker last spring.
Drawing from my experience on both sides of the desk -- as a totally deaf person in a variety of professional positions, and as a business executive who has hired and promoted people -- I painted a real-world picture of how reading, writing and critical thinking are key factors in getting better jobs and promotions.
But campus militants have been denouncing the literacy project as a conspiracy to oppress deaf people and to eliminate American Sign Language (ASL). There was virtually no advance publicity, so no more than 20 students showed up.
Yet programs like these are much needed because Americans who are deaf and whose English is poor are doubly disadvantaged in the job market. Unfortunately this message is not getting through to many Gallaudet students; they are now demanding that their exams be given in ASL, which is a separate language, instead of in English. Most drop out before graduation -- and those who do graduate take an average of seven years to do so.
I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet, has said he believes the university can best prepare students for the job market by providing an empowering environment in which they may blossom and prosper without feeling like outsiders. The university's new "Vision Implementation Plan" calls for maximum use of visual learning and communication (sign language) and a reorganization of various procedures to improve academic progress.
But is a sheltered, academically undemanding, sign-language milieu the best form of higher education for the deaf? The militants (who are becoming increasingly prevalent among both students and faculty) say yes -- that it is a form of affirmative action. Some Gallaudet faculty members say no -- that it is intellectually dishonest and leaves graduates unprepared for the real world. The militants are part of a minority of deaf people who base their identity on the use of American Sign Language, who view themselves as having their own culture, and who capitalize the D in Deaf to distinguish themselves from the 90 percent of deaf people who are not "culturally Deaf."
It is true that ASL permits fast, accurate and comfortable communication among people who sign. For those who are fluent, it is a full, rich language. And the culturally Deaf community provides a supportive environment in which its members feel more at home than they do in the hearing world.
But the unqualified adulation of ASL as the be-all and end-all for deaf people ignores the flip side: ASL is virtually useless in the mainstream, because almost no hearing people sign. The trade-off for the feel-good environment is that it isolates deaf people and limits their horizons.
In school and on the job, the ability to read quickly and with comprehension, and to write clearly and effectively, is the bedrock of success for anyone. But beyond the issue of literacy, the ability to speak and lip-read opens many additional opportunities in the mainstream. Deafness itself is not an impenetrable barrier to integration; the barrier, if any, is when there is an inability to communicate with hearing people.
The culturally Deaf are not a homogeneous group; many of them believe, as I do, in different strokes for different folks. But the narrow-minded arrogance of the militants tars them all with the same brush of intolerance and clannishness.
Militants constantly disparage Heather Whitestone, the deaf woman who was Miss America of 1995, for giving parents the idea that perhaps their children, too, will be able to speak and lip-read. Yet the fact is that many totally deaf people are succeeding to various degrees in the mainstream -- educationally, professionally and socially -- by communicating orally as she does.
If the activists want to isolate themselves in a sign language community, to reject oral communication and English, to reject medical and technological advances that mitigate or in some cases even eliminate deafness -- that's their business. But when they try to force their values on other deaf people, especially children, that's something else. Unfortunately, that is what is going on right now as ASL activists push their agenda in statehouses throughout the country.
The core item on the socio-political agenda of the Deaf cultural movement is bilingual, bicultural education. This means using ASL as the language of instruction in the classrooms from pre-school on up. The bi-bi advocates permit no spoken English in the classroom -- disregarding the fact that most parents want their children to speak English; that many children learned English before becoming deaf; that most of the hearing-impaired children are hard-of-hearing, not deaf, and can speak English quite well.
Since there is no written form of ASL, the textbooks (if any) are in English. What the proponents do not say is how a child whose preschool language is ASL will suddenly become proficient enough in English to read the textbooks with any degree of understanding.
State residential schools based on sign language are the traditional incubators for the culturally Deaf. Today, because of declining enrollments (fewer than 10 percent of deaf students go to state schools), state legislatures are talking about closing them down.
Some lawmakers are also concerned about the well-known negative effects of the environment at state residential schools on many students. These include immaturity, naivete, intolerance, a lack of the attitudes and people skills needed for employment and independent living, a lack of intellectual development and dependence on welfare.
The goals of those who are pushing for special state laws are both ideological (to perpetuate the Deaf community by recruiting more ASL users) and financial (to appropriate more money for the state residential schools). They claim that other educational methods have been failures. As evidence, they point to surveys by Gallaudet covering 60 percent of the country's deaf students, which indicate that the average reading level of 16- and 17-year-old deaf students is third grade.
But what about the uncounted 40 percent, most of whom communicate orally by speaking and lip-reading? A survey commissioned by the National Institutes of Health found that a sample of profoundly deaf oral students in the same age group averaged an eighth-grade reading level (five grades above the national deaf average), and 30 percent were above the 10th-grade level.
Nevertheless, without any proof that an ASL-based education would be any better, the militants are trying to make it the law of the land for all children with hearing losses. In Maryland, a proposed bill (fortunately defeated in committee) called for all deaf children to be fluent in ASL and educated in ASL classrooms. Similar "educational bills of rights" have been introduced in other states, including Indiana, South Dakota, California, Louisiana, Washington, Virginia, North Carolina, Utah and Texas. In Minnesota, a law pushed through by militants requires all teachers of the deaf to be proficient in ASL and for half of their continuing education hours to be in Deaf culture studies or ASL. This, and the repeated bashings they get from the culturally Deaf, have moved many dedicated teachers to leave the profession altogether.
In the 1970s, Jerome Schein's landmark survey, "Deaf People as a Population," provided substantial evidence that deaf people as a group are underemployed. More recently, Janet MacLeod-Gallinger's seven-year study, "The Career Status of Deaf Women" (1992), corroborated the existence of underemployment among deaf people -- especially women. Employers say that the biggest obstacle to the hiring and promotion of a deaf person is when there is an inability to communicate adequately, if at all, on the job.
It is irresponsible to minimize or eliminate the teaching and use of oral skills in the classroom. With early identification and early intervention, significant numbers of prelingually deaf children are being taught to speak and lip-read. In addition, most deaf children have some residual hearing that can be enhanced with the proper technology. A relatively new technique, "cued speech," uses hand shapes around the speaker's mouth to help young lip-readers differentiate among similar-looking sounds.
Hearing aids are constantly being improved. And cochlear implants are having unpredictable but often dramatic results in giving deaf people some usable hearing.
After being totally deaf for 55 years (since the age of 6), I myself received a cochlear implant a few months ago. I can hear and identify many environmental sounds, and the feedback of my voice has made my speech somewhat more pleasant and understandable. Although my ability to understand spoken words by hearing alone is still minimal, it has been slowly but steadily improving. The most successful implantees (about 20 percent) can understand spoken words over the telephone, and almost all can lip-read and speak better.
But ASL militants are against such advances, especially for children. They claim that in a community in which everyone is deaf and communicates in ASL, deafness is not a disability and is not something that needs fixing. This is self-delusion.
Regardless of whether a child signs, he will maximize his opportunities for an independent, productive adult life by developing whatever speaking and lip-reading skills he can. Some children are up to the greater challenge, with various degrees of success; some are not. Each child is different.
The important thing is to have all options available for deaf people with different needs and capabilities -- not a restrictive mandate that takes away freedom of choice, that bars access to opportunities in the mainstream. Those who give lip service to English reading and writing skills, and who deliberately reject spoken English, are biting the tongue that feeds them. Lew Golan, a former advertising executive and newspaper editor, is author of "Reading Between the Lips: A Totally Deaf Man Makes It in the Mainstream."