Scoping support for New Zealand Sign Language users accessing the Curriculum Part I: An international literature review

Publication Details

This literature review has focused on the needs of those deaf children for whom visual communication through a Sign Language is beneficial for their educational development. The aim is to allow the sector to constantly and critically re-examine its work and approaches, as is called for in the literature (Schick et al 2006).

Released on Education Counts: December 2010

Author(s): Prepared by Fitzgerald & Associates for the Ministry of Education

Date Published: October 2010

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1. Introduction

The under-achievement of students who are deaf, with particularly poor English skills, has been an enigma to professionals and parents for decades (Colorado DOE, 2002).

Deaf school leavers have been reported to have an average reading age of 9 – 12 (Gregory 1996, Komesaroff 1999, Paterson 1994, Mahshie 1995, Yoshinaga 1997). Later research also reports significant delays (Grimes  et al 2007, Hendar 2009, Geers et al ). Deaf and hearing-impaired children perform better in mathematics than reading but still lag behind their hearing peers (Davies,1991). Paterson also cites American research which showed that only one third of hearing-impaired students received high school diplomas compared to 75% of African American students. More than 30% leave school functionally illiterate. 

And yet deaf people have IQs close to the mean for hearing people. Braden (1992) notes that the ability to speak has been considered synonymous with intelligence and criticises early studies of the intelligence of deaf people because of the poor testing measures.

Low achievement, particularly for severely and profoundly deaf children, has also prevailed despite the fact that a good education and competence in the majority language are essential for a good economic and social future.

This low achievement has led to a growing interest in the idea of educating deaf children bilingually, acknowledging the value of both sign and the spoken language in the classroom.

Disadvantage in education is now widely believed to begin with the linguistic delay experienced by many deaf children and is compounded by schooling conducted often in an inaccessible mode. Without access to a spoken mother tongue, access to Sign Language becomes critical (Reffell and McKee, 2009).

The superior achievement in many domains of deaf children of deaf parents supports the conclusion that higher-level cognitive processes are not speech input dependent but information input dependent (Wilbur, 2001).

For most deaf children, their early language models are not fluent users of the language they are learning. The signing from Deaf peers and adults may also be quite variable. This restricted language input often results in language delays that make it more difficult to take advantage of fluent language when they encounter it (Schick et al, 2006).

The most significant difference between a deaf and hearing perspective of deaf education is the choice of language for instruction. It is only in bilingual programmes that Deaf people and their language are central to the education of the deaf (Komesaroff, 1999).

One hundred and forty-one Deaf community, professionals and families have recently responded to a recent Human Rights Commission survey to confirm their top three priorities for NZSL include enhancing deaf children’s early access to education through New Zealand Sign Language(NZSL), support for families to learn NZSL and making interpreter services more available and of better quality (Human Rights Commission Survey, 2010).

Legislation and policy are also supportive, although not insistent on the use of NZSL:

  • The Education Act 1989 requires schools to accept all students regardless of need and the Special Education Policy Guidelines requires consideration of learners’ language and culture in planning programmes.  The 2007 NZ Ministry of Education’s Curriculum Statement (p 14) notes that NZSL may be the medium of instruction across all learning areas. The Ministry of Education and the two Deaf Education Centres recognise NZ Sign Language as one of the languages in a Deaf bilingual environment.
  • The New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006 recognises New Zealand Sign Language as an official language of New Zealand, alongside English and Māori and states that government services and information should be made accessible to the deaf community through the use of appropriate means (including the use of New Zealand Sign Language).
  • The Human Rights Act (1993) expects services to be accessible to all people except where it is not reasonable to expect this.
  • The Health and Disability Commissioner Act 1994 states that the duties of disability services providers should be able to communicate effectively with their consumers, including through the provision of interpreters.
  • The 2001 New Zealand Disability Strategy, impacting on all government departments, notes their third objective to provide the best education for disabled people and specifies the need to provide access to education in NZSL as well as the use of other communication technologies.
  • The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007) requires signatories, including New Zealand, to ensure that deaf people have access to government information and services, to allow the use of New Zealand Sign Language, and to ensure the provision of Sign Language interpreters. It notes in article 24 its support for inclusion in education but also specifies the need to facilitate the learning of Sign Language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community.

We do know that no single method of communication will be appropriate for all deaf children. They will have many different routes to the same goal, through Sign Language, oral and auditory modes, as well as manually coded English or a combination of these. The goal must be to identify the hearing loss as early as possible and match the strengths and needs of each child and their family (Marschark & Spencer, 2003).

This literature review has focused on the needs of those deaf children for whom visual communication through a Sign Language is beneficial for their educational development. The aim is to allow the sector to constantly and critically re-examine its work and approaches, as is called for in the literature (Schick et al 2006).

One of Australia’s researchers has analysed trends, including school enrolment, neonatal screening, and census data, and has concluded that the incidence of severe and profound childhood deafness is less than traditionally assumed (0.1%) and that the signing Deaf community is slowly shrinking at both older and younger ends. Contributors to this decline include improved medical care such as vaccines, as well as cochlear implantation, improved hearing aids and developing genetic screening and gene therapy (Moores, 2004).