Deaf students say they are receiving an inferior education at provincially run schools, where teachers and principals won’t — or can’t communicate using sign language.
Zak Smith,an 18-year old student going into Grade 12 at E.C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton, Ontario and his mother Barbara Dodd, right. Last spring Smith organized a movement to protest at his school because of concerns about the education that was being provided to the deaf students. By: Kristin Rushowy Education Reporter, Published on Sun Aug 31 2014
Last spring Zak Smith, 18, organized a movement to protest at his school because of concerns about the education that was being provided to the deaf students.
Students attending Ontarios provincial deaf schools say they are receiving an inferior education from teachers and administrators who cant or wont communicate using sign language.
From a lack of courses offered in high school that would qualify them for university, to teachers who tell them they arent smart enough to go on to post-secondary, numerous student concerns have prompted the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth to call for a review, the Star has learned.
The complaints, by students at Miltons E.C. Drury, echo those raised by teens three years ago at Ottawa deaf school Centre Jules-Leger, says a letter sent by provincial advocate Irwin Elman to Education Minister Liz Sandals, obtained by the Star.
Among the issues:
Teachers who have low expectations of students (students) said that they want staff to raise their confidence levels, not lower them . . . students have seen staff comment that students are not very smart and that they are unlikely to go to college.
A lack of university-bound courses offered at the school. Some students are sent to local hearing schools to receive credits, this is not preferred and creates some barriers in learning, the students say.
Students report that some teachers, who can use ASL (American Sign Language), choose to not use it regularly in school some of the students stated that they have difficulty following the curriculum when speech is the primary form of education.
Staff dont represent the uniqueness of deaf culture and language.
Senior administrators are not qualified in ASL and are unable to communicate with the students directly or interact with them beyond signing hello or how are you.
Students at E.C. Drury held protests last year, boycotting their classes and at the same time, contacted Elman. They now regularly meet at his office to plan how they will push for change.
The students expressed a great deal of pride in their school, adds the letter, which Elman sent more than a year ago, to no avail. They would like to see improvements made and the school community to continue.
Lauren Ramey, spokesperson for Ontarios education minister, said every effort is made to have a teacher who is proficient in American Sign Language in each classroom.
The schools do hire teachers who have or are working toward additional specialist qualifications in teacher students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing but many have to hire non-specialist teachers if they cant find qualified ones.
Each provincial school for the deaf has at least one administrator who is deaf, she added.
But for David Lucas, a former deaf school student who is now advocating for change, thats just not good enough.
To the outside world, this might seem sufficient. For the Deaf community, this is outrageous, he said via email. Would we accept foreigners with very limited English to work and teach students in English schools? Not at all. But when it comes to provincial schools for the deaf, anything goes. The Ministry of Education does not set standards in ASL in this regard.
The provincial deaf schools have suffered from declining enrolment over the years as students are integrated into their local schools. Some 268 students are enrolled in deaf schools this fall; with an additional 40 at the French-language Jules-Leger.
In 2010, deaf schools came under fire when Don Drummond, appointed by the Liberal government to look at cost-cutting, recommended three deaf schools in Belleville, London and Milton be merged, and that the school be overseen by a public board.
The Canadian Hearing Society and others warned of the impact of such a move, and researchers argued that students often struggle in regular classrooms without access to sign language.
While the recommendation was not adopted, troubles have persisted at the schools. In an interview, Elman said his job is to ensure student voices are heard, and to push their issues forward.
For a couple of years now, the schools have been at a crossroads, Elman said. I felt like the ministry needed to re-establish the mission, and vision and purpose of the schools, with the community to re-inject new life into the school.
He said he asked the education ministry for such a review, and was told no. Theyve never done a review as far as I know. I do think it needs to happen there are important questions and students have a lot to say.
Drury student Zak Smith, 18, said his experiences at the school have been both good and not so good.
What is good about the school, social interaction with other peers like me who understand each other. Communication barrier free, he said in an email exchange.
SOME staff . . . can use sign language to communicate with deaf students directly . . . there are MANY who don’t sign fluently enough . . . Our superintendent cannot even sign, instead she depends on an interpreter. This means indirect communication through 3rd party.
He said hes felt belittled by teachers, and his mother, Barbara Dodd, filed an official complaint with the Ontario College of Teachers.
While Smith has just one semester left before graduating, he was told his marks wont get him into his university of choice.
Ramey said teachers do have high expectations of their students and guidance counsellors work with teens starting in Grade 9 to plan their future.
When it is not possible to offer a specific course that a student may need for their chosen post-secondary destination, the provincial schools provide students the option of accessing the course by attending a local high school with the aid of an interpreter.
We will continue to work closely with staff at provincial schools across Ontario to provide a high-quality education for all students, she added.
While Smith is feeling frustrated, hes still dreaming big.
I want to be a police officer like my dad, I understand being deaf may give me other options working in the police station like paperwork or fingerprints, or forensics. There is a university where they have lab, forensics, crime studies, he said.
A lot of my friends graduated and had to go to the college to upgrade before we can qualify for colleges and/or universities. I start to lose motivation because the principal, teachers tell me I cant do it. And I see hearing people graduate and go straight to colleges and/or universities.