A Visit to the Albuquerque ASL Academy

As many deaf people, including me, have found out firsthand, the promise of a mainstreamed education isn’t perfect. I’m the product of a mainstreamed education system, through-and-through since preschool: public school for elementary school, private school from then on out, all the time as the only deaf student in the schools I attended. Since kindergarten I have never had another deaf student around, never really been in an environment built for me (aside from providing access to interpreters and other accommodations). Do I regret it? No, but that’s because along the way I had access to some of the most incredible teachers, academic experiences, and peers I can imagine. I feel very fortunate to have had those options, with the support of my parents and other mentors, and they’ve helped me get to where I am today, to a life I am happy to have.

But that doesn’t mean my time in the education system has been all easy, or that it was all effective – as has been well-documented among researchers, deaf children alone in the mainstream (to borrow the name of Gina Oliva’s well-known book) frequently feel more isolated, less capable of connecting socially and linguistically, and more uncertain about their identity in a hearing world than do either hearing students or deaf students attending a deaf program or deaf institution. Without going into details, that was all true for me for a long while. Mainstreamed deaf students may be very successful academically, as I was, so it’s then easy for teachers and administrators to ignore something else: the importance of community and diverse/accessible language options in learning and communicating. I frankly missed out on some of that – something I’m not bitter about, really, just interested in continuing to explore for future generations. Because of personal experience and ongoing systematic factors and education debates, I continue to be curious about the options that are available for deaf and hard-of-hearing students (and other students who have their own diverse needs) to pursue an education appropriate to their individuality.

That’s why I was excited, earlier today, to visit a new charter school in my hometown of Albuquerque that is the first of its kind in the state, and also in the country. The Albuquerque ASL Academy was first founded in 2009 by a group of local parents and educators concerned about the education options available for deaf and hard-of-hearing children in the state of New Mexico. More or less, at this time, those children faced the same kinds of education options that I did when I was younger: go to the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe, far away from home, or attend schools in the Albuquerque Public Schools system, which are sometimes not the best fit for a particular deaf or hard-of-hearing child. (I got out of this set of choices when I had the opportunity to attend a private secondary school. No, there wasn’t a deaf program there at all, but I got by and did very well, academically, with an interpreter. Still, for my family for a while this education conundrum was a true dilemma.) The idea the ASL Academy is founded on is unique: instead of creating another school for the deaf, or figuring out how to fit deaf kids into an essentially hearing-centric mainstreamed program, how about building a diverse and bilingual school, to benefit both deaf and hearing students, that puts ASL at the heart of its curriculum?

One of the ideas I’ve become most interested in, during the last couple of years, is how sign language, in itself, isn’t just beneficial for deaf people. It’s a full-fledged, rich, beautiful, and uniquely useful language that can confer advantages, joys, and new perspectives on all people who use it, whether deaf or hearing. It thrives and has a unique role in the Deaf community, for sure, but the more people we can get to learn and use ASL, the better – for equality, for inclusion, and also for community and solid forms of communication. As I’ve written about before, hearing people are missing out, too, if they don’t have the opportunity to learn and use ASL. And they truly still have so few opportunities to do this, or to be exposed to the gains inherent to the signing Deaf worldview. I’m a firm proponent of bilingualism, since I love spoken and written English, too, and love the different understandings that come with multiple modalities and linguistic flexibility. Seeing this bilingualism embodied in an education setting made me excited about all the possibilities: how can we use the positive aspects of deaf education to broaden that community and also include hearing students, for everybody’s benefit?

This morning, the executive director of the ASL Academy was kind enough to show me around and chat with me about the school’s future goals and education philosophy. This program, which is the first and only ASL/English bilingually-certified program in the nation, enrolls deaf students, hearing students (many of whom have ties to deaf family members), and students with a range of other disabilities. Some of their students give firm credence to the idea that ASL can be essential for students who are not deaf: students who are nonverbal, for instance, or who have speech delays or other conditions that make communicating in ASL a logical option. (Before the Albuquerque ASL Academy, these students had no option, through the public school system, to communicate in or use ASL – since they, after all, are not classified within their Individual Education Plans as deaf.) Still, walking around and seeing a diverse group of students communicate in sign reminded me of how powerful this approach can be. Sign language remains primary in the school’s educational model: although hearing students and other students can receive some periods of separate instruction in spoken English or other communication methods that benefit them, the heart of the community centers around conversing, learning, and connecting through ASL. The school also is working toward something I truly believe in and wish I saw more of: offering more freely accessible ASL classes to the community, including parents and families.

I’m glad students in New Mexico now have the option to attend a school like this, where communication, community, and the needs of the individual student become commingled. I also left and hoped we someday see more experimentation and research on this approach to education. Mixed educational models, that bring the benefits of ASL and deaf education (and other more individualized approaches to education) to a diverse group of students, bear promise to richen our understanding of what we mean by “an appropriate and inclusive education.” I’m not sure mainstreaming or separate programs/institutionalization are always the best fit for “appropriate” or “inclusive,” either for the individual or the broader community – even though they may work well for some students, and should still be available. The Albuquerque ASL Academy’s philosophy is new, untested, and radical, but its spirit strikes me as a step in a good and novel direction. Those of us interested in education, at different levels, will need to learn more and try more about this bilingual approach and the ways it impacts students, but this particular school provides yet more education options to students in the Albuquerque area – and maybe someday to other places that will try similar things.

What is more, one idea struck me as I left: having deaf and hearing students, and students with other disabilities, learn together and learn to connect and communicate with each other, on a daily basis, also gives me hope for how these young people will eventually understand how to interact with others in their world. My guess is they’ll be more insightful, more collaborative, and more flexible about communication with others and about expressing their own needs, compared to students who never gain exposure to this kind of community. They may well be more innovative, too, in certain ways. Our world really needs this. Our world needs those previously separate spaces to collide, and it needs to figure out how to facilitate this collision, in useful ways but also in ways that may be unexpected or may deviate from a perceived norm. I’m so looking forward to seeing how various educational models and schooling options like this develop and evolve in the future, for the gain of all students.