Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

How Indiana Took Sides In A Debate Over Deaf Schools

Gretchen Frazee / WFIU

Grant Phillips, who is completely deaf, attends Covenant Christian High School in Indianapolis. Phillips has had a cochlear implant since he was 16 months old, which allows him to hear. The device's use has been controversial within the deaf community.

Reported by Gretchen Frazee

Members of the deaf community have long debated whether deaf students should use medical hearing devices and be mainstreamed into the hearing culture, or whether they should be enrolled in schools that provide a more specialized education and promote the use of sign language.

In Indiana, that debate has come to a head in public schools serving the state’s hearing-impaired students.

The state is starting to pull resources away from the Indiana School for the Deaf, known as the ISD, because some say the school is too biased toward sign language.

A bill that recently passed the Indiana legislature moves the Indiana School for the Deaf’s outreach services to a new center for deaf and hard of hearing education. This means students will receive assessments and other assistance from a new center for deaf and hard of hearing education.

“I think the first choice of many of these families is to get their child back into the hearing world if it’s possible.”
—Dr. Richard Miyamoto, former Indiana School for the Deaf board member

As medical devices become more advanced, the debate between oral communication and sign language has become more heated. Lawmakers said the ISD was not giving students enough experience in the hearing culture through the use of cochlear implants. (The devices electrically stimulate nerves in the inner ear, allowing deaf individuals to hear.)

But the school’s administrators say this isn’t true. ISD superintendent David Geeslin says the school’s outreach services assess each child individually and provide parents with all the possible options.

“Unfortunately there is not an easy litmus test where we can just determine what method the child needs to be instructed through,” Geeslin says. “It would be nice if it were that simple that we could just use that litmus test and know if that student was going to be a visual or auditory learner. But it’s all about trial and experiences quite honestly.”

Dr. Richard Miyamoto, a former Indiana School for the Deaf board member, was in charge of the first Federal Drug Administration’s trials of cochlear implants. While he says he understands the ISD’s stance in the debate, Miyamoto says about 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.

“Most [parents] aren’t very good at signing because it’s a second language they aren’t proficient in so it’s a real effort to learn this,” Miyamoto says, “so I think the first choice of many of these families is to get their child back into the hearing world if it’s possible.”

That causes parents to look at options other than sign language, Miyamoto adds. One of the best alternatives, so far, has been cochlear implants.

But many students can’t be mainstreamed because they have other learning disabilities or in Margaret Katter’s case, they aren’t candidates for implants. With autoimmune disease, the problem is between the cochlea and the brain, so cochlear implants don’t help.

Mainstreamed, With An Asterisk

Grant Phillips and three of his classmates are giving a presentation on Wuthering Heights to their literature class at Covenant Christian High School in Indianapolis.

“Listening is work. It’s something extra that I have to do. And then when I’m sitting in class at the deaf school I don’t have to do that.”
—Margaret Katter, ISD student

Unlike his peers, Phillips is completely deaf, but you could hardly tell from listening to him and watching how he interacts with his friends. Since he was 16 months old, Phillips has had a cochlear implant — Dr. Miyamoto performed the procedure.

At the time of the surgery Phillips was the youngest child to undergo the procedure. He’s now 18.  Phillips has been accepted to IUPUI and plans to go into public safety management.

“I’m going to go try and enroll in the law enforcement academy and work toward becoming a law enforcement officer, because I have to pass the physical and I don’t even know if they’ll let me do that yet, but hopefully I can pass that,” Phillips says.

‘Listening Is Work’

On the other side of town, Margaret Katter, sits in a classroom at the Indiana School for the Deaf or ISD. She and her classmates and teacher use sign language to communicate with each other.

Katter has autoimmune inner ear disease, a condition that progressively worsens. That means she can hear using a hearing aid, although some days are better than others.

Gretchen Frazee / WFIU

Margaret Katter participates in class at the Indiana School for the Deaf. Katter, who will graduate as the ISD's valedictorian this Spring, has an autoimmune disorder that adversely affects her hearing. She's not a candidate for cochlear implants, but Katter says she's glad she wasn't put in mainstream schools.

“Most of the time I speak with my family but in situations where the place is really noisy and I can’t really understand and I might be having kind of an off day with my hearing, then we transition into sign language,” Katter says.

Because of the nature of her condition, Katter isn’t a candidate for cochlear implants. When she was less than two years old, Katter’s parents decided to teach her sign language and put her in classes here at ISD where sign language is primarily used to communicate.

Katter is valedictorian and will graduate this year with college credits that she’s earned at a local public high school. And even though she could have been mainstreamed into public school like Phillips, Katter says she’s glad she wasn’t.

“Listening is work. It’s something extra that I have to do. And then when I’m sitting in class at the deaf school I don’t have to do that, I can just focus on learning and remembering what I’m learning in class,” Katter says.

Gretchen Frazee is a reporter and producer for Indiana Public Media. 


  • Alan DelRay

    What Dr. Miyamoto and the technology only advocates fail to appreciate is the emotional damage to children caused by the message that “you’re only good enough for us if you can hear and speak like we do.” They also aggressively preach that parents must not use ASL or even natural gestures with their children out of fear that such will hinder the development of spoken english. Numerous published studies show the tremendous benefits to brain development offered by bilingualism. In my opinion, by discouraging ASL with his patients, Dr. Miyamoto is committing actionable malpractice.

    • Felixspock39

      I am Deaf and that is the same garbage the Audiologists told my folks. Don’t sign, don’t gesture, or she will never learn to find her natural voice. So I was sent to all hearing schools and let me tell you, it was pure hell. My folks refused to allow me interpreters. I could”t speechread well. Amazing I even managed to graduate high school. PLUS, don’t forget the ridicule. Oh those kids picked on and taunted me from K-12 grade. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten.

  • Ronnie Wilbur

    It’s too bad the reporter did not get additional information on the accuracy of the claims made by some of the people quoted. There is data that I presented at the hearing in the legislature showing that ISD children who receive early ASL input outperform children who don’t on tests of reading and math and on State standardized tests. Furthermore, many of the children who don’t have early ASL who are at ISD have multiple disabilities, which are never mentioned by the ASL opponents. Children with early ASL at ISD have fewer additional disability diagnoses than those without early ASL. Extensive research on early neural development for children who receive early ASL shows long-term benefits for later learning and language processing compared to those who don’t. As the previous poster mentions, there is also the emotional damage. Further, 10% of the children between 6 months and 2 years at ISD have cochlear implants, and around 30% of those aged 3-6 years have implants. They are in a bilingual environment getting the best of what is available. There is no debate on these facts. There are lots of opinions from people who are selling something. But the data support what ISD does and it is too bad that the political situation in our State has led to this unwarranted and damaging move on the part of elected officials who think they know what they are doing. Ronnie Wilbur

    • Semibarbaricprincess1

      Can you please provide citations for that data? Who conducted the studies? Where was it published?

    • Bulger12


  • Marla Hatrak

    Cochlear implantation has been a success only in that deaf children are now hearing a bit “more” than they could before the procedure. There are and always will be “poster children” like the student in the article. That’s not the educational question.

    What we should be asking is whether deaf students are achieving academically with the cochlear implant. Based on current scores, they are NOT achieving grade-level reading or math.

    If we are to be responsible about making public policy, we need to ask tougher questions and have a state-wide testing of all deaf students. I think we will be startled by the numbers.

    Cochlear implantation is not a panacea for educating deaf students, as much as we wish very hard for it to be.

  • Bkindy

    As a deaf educator in public schools I have greater appreciation for hearning parents of deaf children who sign. Most of the children I served attended their community public school until high school when the preferred (like most kids) to be with peers like themselves so they completed their education at ISD.
    Hearing parents of deaf children just want to raise their kids like other parents. Sending them away for a week is too much to ask of parents! This is what we ask of families who live outside of Indy. Putting children in an institutional setting is difficult during the teen years but at least, if something happens, they are old enough to speak out! And yes, unseemly things have happened. I would not put my child in that situation, even though I certainly understand the language benefits.
    Hearing parents often can not learn to sign fluently and I agree this is a concern, however, it is a deaf educator responsibliity to work with these families. Providing opportunities for these kids to participate in the Deaf community is essenticial. By attending sporting events, plays, and Deaf Camp each summer, deaf children to appreciate both the hearing and deaf world and their lanugages. It allows them to decide who they are and what works best for them. It also teaches the children to believe in themselves and their ability to live among both hearing and deaf people.
    After teaching deaf children for 20 years, I changed teaching certifications. I simply couldn’t stomach this continued debate. It is time to move forward!

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