Deaf students protest Daniels’ picks for board

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Deaf students, their educators and families are protesting a move by Gov. Mitch Daniels they say will strip support for sign language.

More than 100 students, their families and activists rallied on the Statehouse lawn Tuesday against new members Daniels picked to serve on the Indiana School for the Deaf's board.

The activists say the new board members represent an attempt by supporters of "mainstreaming" — or teaching deaf people to read lips and rely more on technology such as cochlear implants — to do away with American Sign Language.

"This is an issue of us supporting our children to go to the Indiana School for the Deaf and their rights to a quality education," said Tami Hossler, editor of The Endeavor, magazine for the American Society for the Deaf.

The battle is highlighting a national rift in the deaf community over whether to rely on sign language or "mainstreaming" as a primary form of communication for deaf students.

Naomi Horton, executive director or Hear Indiana, a group promoting "mainstreaming" over sign language, said she felt like she "travelled back in time" when she moved to Indiana and assessed the technology and training available for deaf and hard of hearing people.

Hear Indiana does not want to eliminate sign language, she said. But ISD receives an inordinate amount of state support, Horton said, noting that it receives $18 million from the state to teach sign language to almost 350 students.

"The discussion right now is about parent choice," she said.

And Daniels is siding with Hear Indiana and other supporters of "mainstreaming" in that discussion.

Daniels appointed four new members to ISD's board last month: Mary Susan Buhner, Ann Reifel, Scott Rigney and Lucy Witte. Sign language supporters want Buhner, Rigney and Witte to resign — particularly Buhner and Rigney because of their work with Hear Indiana.

Ten people sit on the board, but only seven can vote on school policies.

"We have no intention of eliminating sign language at the school," said Daniels spokeswoman Jane Jankowski.

"Just as we do with all appointments to boards and commissions, we seek individuals who will take a fresh look at operations and bring new ideas, and these new members are eager to serve the school well," said Jankowski. Daniels does not plan to rescind the appointments and wants opponents to give the new members a chance before making up their minds, she said.

Even though there is no specific proposal from the new board members to curtail sign language, national supporters of signing are not waiting until a proposal appears, said Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, who flew from Washington, D.C., to Indianapolis for the protest.

The battle between the two schools of thought on deaf education has been waged since the 1800's, with a major blow coming to sign language during an 1880 conference of deaf educators in Milan, Italy, Rosenblum said. Since then, sign language supporters have been wary, he said.

Parents of deaf children should be free to choose whether their child learns sign language or learns to read lips and relies on technology, but opponents of sign language should not have control over a school that teaches sign language, Rosenblum said.

"That's not their place to come on the board of the Indiane school for the deaf to tell us that we've been doing everything wrong," Rosenblum said.

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