Nfld. & Labrador

Deaf children need teachers fluent in American Sign Language: N.L. educator

Barbara O'Dea says deaf students are too isolated when a teacher cannot properly communicate with them in the classroom.
Barbara O'Dea says some deaf children are becoming more isolated in the classroom. (Christine Davies/CBC)

A former educator says the Newfoundland and Labrador government has let down deaf children by closing the School for the Deaf and isolating students by not having teachers who can properly communicate with them in the classroom.

Barbara O'Dea, who has a PhD in educational linguistics and previously taught at the former School for the Deaf, said deaf children don't need supports — they need teachers who know American Sign Language (ASL). 

One family has filed a human rights complaint against the Newfoundland and Labrador English District School Board arguing her son, who is deaf, isn't getting the same education as other students. 

O'Dea spoke with CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on what she believes is needed to fix the issue. 

Q: Is there a way to summarize what are your main concerns about how education is being delivered to deaf children here?

The main concern is that they get many, many fewer hours a day, a week, therefore a year, of education. That is because their teachers can't communicate with them. Then they spend the same number of hours in the school isolated from other children because the hearing children can't communicate with them.… The isolation that a child has sitting in a classroom with people who cannot communicate with them at all, cannot teach them, cannot assess them. 

Q: What was supposed to happen [when the School for the Deaf closed in 2010]? Do you have a notion of what should happen if kids were integrated?

The promise was that the children would have the same educational resources. So the main resource would be teachers who can communicate with them.… Nothing would be lost. At the Newfoundland School for the Deaf, the children were included. They talked to each other. They were taught by teachers who could communicate with them. [But when the school closed] people say, 'Well, you know we give a lot of support.' Yeah, I'm not interested in supports, really, for these kids. I'm interested in education and we all should be interested in education. 

Q: What what do they need specifically? 

We have either pods or just units where there are deaf children together who can communicate with each other and get deaf adults. Parents [of deaf students] have told me that when you have a student assistant who is deaf, that's where their child learns … and they need deaf role models so that they understand how to navigate the hearing world. 

Q: They need a teacher as well who's fluent in ASL? 

Absolutely. Absolutely … and the teachers today, God love them. They're coming out with a master's degree — again from a university that has no ESL proficiency expectation of their graduates. So if you know ASL from parents [of deaf children] or the community, you can have a master's degree and be fluent in American Sign Language.… The students, those teachers, are coming out trying to catch up.

Q: But you were determined and dedicated [to learn ASL]? It shouldn't necessarily be up to the initiative of the individual should it?

No. Because to put that upon teachers who are coming out and working in this system, so they're going from class to class to class to class ... but we have children who need teachers who have fluency in American Sign Language. 

Q:  To summarize, the government that closed the School for the Deaf and governments since have said all the right things about integration and have not followed through and have let these kids down?

Absolutely without question. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show