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Mainstream Education Leaves Deaf Students at Disadvantage  

02 August 2016 -  Dr Christine Monikowski is a Professor in the Department of American Sign Language and Interpreting Education at Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York and was recently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, Trinity College Dublin, in collaboration with the Trinity Centre for Deaf Studies in the School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences.

Christine MonikowskiDr Monikowski has been a pioneering member of the Deaf interpreters’ community since she first became involved in signing for Deaf students at a residential school in Philadelphia. Drawing on her experience of the U.S., she talks about academic achievement and language acquisition in the Deaf community.

From Residential to Public Schools

During her fellowship Dr Monikowski gave a public lecture on the topic of Language Myths: First Language, Second Language, What Language? Deaf Students and Sign Language Interpreters’.  Addressing the growing disparity between Deaf students and their hearing peers and how academic achievement among Deaf students hasn’t improved in the U.S. since the early 1900s, she asked what has gone wrong.

Although moving from a residential school system for the Deaf to a public school system seemed like a progressive move for the U.S. government when it introduced mainstreaming in the 1970s, Dr Monikowski argues that it impacted severely on Deaf children’s ability to access the visual language of Sign. ‘Most of the hearing families who had Deaf children had to send their children away to boarding schools, which was very traumatic for both the parents and the children at such a young age. When this law came around many families thought it would be better to have their Deaf children stay in the neighbourhood and go to school with their brothers and sisters and their playmates.’  The implications for their language development would, however, be detrimental for many students.

Communication was even more restricted for these children who may have been the only Deaf student in a class room, where an interpreter was then appointed. ‘Students have been assigned interpreters who were second language learners so their signing was not 100 percent. Even historically when we had so many residential schools, there was much more opportunity for language learning amongst Deaf students - amongst peers.’

Deaf children from hearing families are now in a position where they rarely have access to native users of the language. This lack of access to the first language or native language has resulted in no improvement to Deaf students’ educational achievement during the past century. ‘The reading level of Deaf children who are primarily visual communicators is lower than the average reading level for hearing children because they’re always struggling with trying to access the content.’

Socially, in residential schools, it was an extremely positive experience for Deaf children because they were lots of other people who were like them, Dr Monikowski says.

Christine MonikowskiDr Monikowski started her career in a residential school in Philadelphia, one of the bigger residential schools in the U.S. at that time. Although up until this point she didn’t know any Deaf people, while working as a house parent in Philadelphia she learned American Sign language looking after ninth grade girls when they finished class in the afternoon. Following this, she did a Master’s degree at Gallaudet University in Washington DC and worked for the American School of the Deaf at Hartford, Connecticut as a vocational counsellor – again with high school kids. ‘I always felt the students were so bright but then I saw them write English and I knew something was not right.’

Access to First Language

For Deaf children who do not have Deaf parents, their access to their first language is limited. ‘If they don’t have access to a visual language at an early age, they’re always playing catch-up trying to figure out American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English if they can’t hear.’

‘While you and I learned our native language from our primary care givers,’ Dr Monikowski explains, ‘if you’re a Deaf child and have hearing parents who only speak English you don’t have access to your native language.’ It is the natural use of the native language that allows us to effectively acquire that language and be exposed to it on a daily basis. Dr Monikowski highlights the disadvantaged position Deaf children are placed in when for days, weeks and months, or even years they are not being exposed to the ‘free and spontaneous use of the language.’

 ‘In the U.S., more than 90% of Deaf children are born to parents who are hearing. So there are only about 7% or 8% of students in the U.S. who have Deaf parents who are genetically deaf – because it’s a recessive trait.’

Sign Language Interpreters

After moving to New Mexico from Hartford, Connecticut, Dr Monikowski was awarded a Doctoral degree at the University of New Mexico and while teaching interpreting students, she become interested in language acquisition and how proficiently (or not) interpreting students, whose first language was English, could learn their second language – American Sign Language.

‘My original dissertation was on the language proficiency level of interpreters compared to the language proficiency levels of Deaf adults. After sampling Deaf adults and interpreters with different certification levels to compare their skills, I found that Deaf people had the highest skills in American Sign Language, followed by the certified interpreters,  while the least proficiency was demonstrated by non-certified interpreters.’ What Dr Monikowski’s research is trying to show is that our second language will probably never be as good as our first language and therefore to use Sign language interpreters as language models for a Deaf child may not be best practice. The best model for a child is a Deaf adult, says Dr Monikowski.

‘Educational interpreting has been practiced in the U.S. for at least 35 years. More than 75% of Deaf children are in mainstream programs, receiving most of their academic experience through Sign interpreters. Too few researchers have addressed fundamental questions about mainstreaming in kindergarten through to year 12 education, with little evidence that interpreters effectively mediate classroom learning.’ Furthermore,  not all states in the U.S. require licensing for Sign language interpreters.

For Deaf children with hearing parents ‘Sign language is their primary language but because they didn’t get it from an early age their Sign language is idiosyncratic. So even if you have a really skilled interpreter with a child who doesn’t really understand what the language is in the first place, the child is always thinking ‘what are they saying,’ – so that’s always their first step before they even get to the content.’

Peer-to-Peer Learning

Dr Monikowski is concerned about the access that interpreters have to the Deaf community. She points out that people of her generation learned how to interpret in the community. ‘I never took interpreting classes; I hung out with Deaf people and one day a Deaf person said to me, ‘I have to go to the doctor, will you come with me and interpret?’ Deaf people assessed our skills and decided who could help them with different tasks; the power was in the hands of the Deaf person.’

She worries that the move to formal education for interpreters has meant a loss of connection with the Deaf community, although the credibility of the profession as a whole has been elevated.

Just as foreign language students are required to spend time in the country of their chosen language, Dr Monikowski sees Sign language as no different: ‘The social interaction with the Deaf community is important; it makes me think about when I was in college and I took French classes and although I could read and write French – I couldn’t speak it. Some of my students take classes but they’re not very involved in the community and the language skills are never what they could be.’

Deaf students’ interaction with their Deaf peers also has a significant impact on their learning and social development. The sense of social isolation from their Deaf peers and lack of access to the visual language in the public school system or in the home is creating learning problems for Deaf students, Dr Monikowski says. At the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester where there are 1,700 deaf students, this instant social stimulation is evident among the students in their first semester, where Dr Monikowski says faculty members have trouble trying to get students to go to class instead of interacting with their new found Deaf peers.  Some students who are perhaps, the only Deaf person in their small town, let alone school, experience for the first time a microcosm of what their everyday lives should look like.

For interpreters too, it becomes easier to integrate in the Deaf community in places such as Rochester, New York, where there is such a large Deaf population. Dr Monikowski sees the interpreters’ role at the heart of the community, fostering relationships and ultimately living the language naturally, in everyday life. ‘Interpreters need to be participants.’
‘The language belongs to Deaf people and we need to be involved with them so we can learn the language and keep up with the language.’
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Research Fellowship
During her fellowship at the Trinity Long room Hub, in collaboration with the Trinity Centre for Deaf Studies, Dr Monikowski worked with her counterparts to assess both the U.S. approach to ASL/English and those of Ireland, seeking to understand how these approaches can improve higher education programmes. She also explored how different approaches can foster a better understanding of access to services for the Deaf community in a changing global society. Many educators live in remote areas, both in Ireland and the U.S., where they cannot take advantage of the new learnings that an institute of higher education has to offer. ‘Deaf people live all over the U.S and therefore, interpreters are needed in both the heavily-populated urban areas and the rural towns.’ Dr Monikowski is examining the possibilities for online learning and streaming of workshops, and during her time working with the Trinity Centre for Deaf Studies, she sought to explore best practice approaches to resolving the challenge of access to education and/or continuous professional development for interpreters wherever they are based.


Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | aoife.king@tcd.ie | 01 896 3895