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The Social Aspect of Deafness

Dr. Andrew Foster

The Social Aspect of Deafness: School Years
by Dr. Andrew Foster (MA, LHD)

Dr. Foster was the keynote speaker at the Seventh World Congress of the Deaf in Washington, DC, July 31st, 1975. This speech focuses on challenges faced by those who educate the Deaf: inadequate facilities, trained personnel, finance, communication and most importantly, Spiritual and moral training.

It is a pleasure to participate in the Seventh World Congress of the Deaf. What great strides the World Federation of the Deaf has made since its Third World Congress which I attended at Wiesdbaden, Germany in 1951 Moreover, I am grateful to the conference planners for inviting me to present the keynote address on “The Social Aspects of Deafness-School Years;” yet, as a first tire keynote speaker, I feel inadequate for the task. The theme, “Full Citizenship for ALL Deaf People,” is very timely and is an idea which we have carried to a far corner of the earth.

By “far corner,” I mean West Africa. Though American by birth and formal training, nearly all 18 years of my professional experience has been in Africa putting into practice the principles of “full citizenship for all deaf people.” As missionaries., my wife and I have had the privilege of pioneering educational and Christian work among the deaf in Ghana, Nigeria, indirectly in Liberia and recently in French-speaking Ivory Coast. Furthermore, we have tried to inculcate the same idea in deaf protégés from Uganda, Zaire, Kenya and Cameroon as well as from our host countries. So, my topic will-generally reflect the deaf of Africa; though I hope the thoughts can be useful elsewhere, particularly in other developing areas.

Many educational problem confront the deaf in Africa. Nevertheless, I shall try to identify some in the order of priority. Alternatives suggested might also serve as leads for discussions.

I. The Problem of Inadequate Schools

Undoubtedly, the greatest social problem of school-age deaf children in developing countries is the fact that most are not in school. Special provisions are simply insufficient in some areas and wholly lacking in others. For instance, on the huge continent of Africa, which is nearly four times larger than the United States, only about 90 schools and classes exist for the deaf as compared with some 1,000 in America. Population-wise, let us focus on one of Africa’s 40-plus countries, perhaps Nigeria, the most populous. Of its estimated 70 million people, probably 70,000 are profoundly deaf, based upon the more or less universal ratio of one deaf person per 1,000 population. Suppose a third (23,300) are school age. View them against the approximately 500 students presently attending the five residential schools. The magnitude of this social problem could be readily seen. As for Nigeria, this picture may soon change with the country’s new compulsory primary school law and oil revenue. However, for most developing lands, especially with high birth rates, the problem remains to provide educational facilities for the greatest number of deaf children in the shortest possible time. Indeed, at least a functional education seems essential since “full citizenship” is a two-way street.

What can be done now? Perhaps the first thought that crosses your mind is the establishment of more day classes in sizable cities and boarding institutions in strategic locations Ideal suggestions. They should be encouraged! But practical applications may be limited. Ordinary schools, to which units for the deaf might be attached, are perpetually struggling for more space. Special day and residential schools, especially the latter, are slow to develop as well as expensive to build and operate — economic factors which may not be so attractive to many governments and voluntary organizations. I am wondering why schools for deaf children cannot be more simple and inexpensive in design and construction, yet sturdy. Funds could go farther towards providing additional facilities. Schools for hearing children are facing their battle with arrest any and every conceivable type of shelter available: rented houses, store fronts, roof tops (as in Hong Kong), tin shacks, mud huts thatch roofs and so on. Though “unconventional,” I should think that hundreds of thousands of unschooled deaf children in developing lands would nor mind one bit these radical but speedy alternatives, for they would then be on the road toward a fuller citizenship in their societies.

II. The Problem of Special Personnel

Closely linked with special facilities are, of course, special personnel, particularly teachers and heads of program. Fortunately, their number is increasing in Africa, especially with the establishment of training centers in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. Also minimum qualifications of teachers of the deaf are being raised from the 6th to the 10th and 12th grade levels. Yet the supply in relation to the need is dismally low. For instance, at one teacher per 12 students, Nigeria’s hypothetical 23,300 deaf children would require 2,000 special teachers, as against less than 50 at present. Naturally, increasing the number of these teachers to a proportional increase in training expenses, salaries and allowances–further economic realities which would hardly improve the low priority of rehabilitating the disabled in many developing countries.

Perhaps a mass mobilization of indigenous teachers of the deaf could be achieved by lowering qualifications slightly, especially in rural areas. Also, by scattering trained and semi-trained personnel so as to tutor their untrained counterparts in new locations. If these and other practical suggestions could be favorably impressed upon the authorities in developing countries educational opportunities would be provided for countless deaf “outcasts” in a very short time.

III. The Problem of Finance

Provisions for the handicapped suffer a low priority in many developing lands. Disabled persons are often thought to be useless and a burden to both their families and to society. Their real economic worth is not widely known or understood. As we all are aware, tax-supported handicapped persons can be trained to become happy, productive tax-paying citizens. Ghana subscribed to this principle early after its independence. In 1960, its Government Cabinet appointed this speaker to serve on a committee charged with investigating and recommendations for rehabilitating all disabled persons. As a result of the “John Wilson Report,” the deaf are now the beneficiary of nine schools and a teacher training center. Virtually every deaf child has access to schooling, and nearly all school leavers (graduates) are gainfully employed. Thus, with a fully supported comprehensive rehabilitation program, that includes school children, graduates are contributing taxes as well as skilled and semi-skilled manpower to their country’s economy.

Perhaps this Congress could explore ways by which to convince other governments of the same potentialities and legitimate rights of their deaf citizens. Then, hopefully, more educational programs for deaf children would be started and properly financed.

IV. The Problem of Communication

Deaf children attending school in Africa face two communication problem. One is the language medium. The other involves the receptive-expressive method. Language can be a complicated matter in some areas. In Kenya, for example, English is the national language, Swahili a prevailing tribal language, while lesser languages and dialects pockmark the country. Primary schools begin teaching in the local language, adding English after about the third year. English alone is used above primary school (6th or 7th years). All common examinations are in English; likewise, the major newspapers, magazines, etc. Deaf children at two of the schools I visited are taught in not the national nor broader indigenous language, but their respective dialects. Such practice pervades a number of other African countries too, sometimes adding the national language later. The rationale is twofold: That this is the procedure in ordinary schools, and that it “enables deaf children to communicate with their parents.” Actually, the practice is unfortunate and tragic because, functionally, it confines the deaf to the immediate area of their birth or, worse, to their mother’s apron strings. Could this be the full citizenship we seek for the deaf?

Hand in hand with the foregoing philosophy is the “pure oral” method of communication. As we all know, this exclusive method rigidly requires deaf children to express themselves only orally and receive the expressions of others by the same mans. The logic of this group of educators is that it is the normal means by which normal people communicate. True! But, auricularly, deaf children are not normal. Employing restrictive and suppressive means of communication to achieve normalcy seem as illogical as it is impractical. Indeed, some gifted deaf children do succeed orally. But, quite universally, they are overshadowed by the number of failures, a fact which rarely seem to bother exponents of the oral method. It should be pointed out, too, that African and Asian languages are highly tonal. Simply by changing the tone, a word can have three or four different meanings. Tones, which are produced in the throat, hardly affect word formation on the lips. How time-wasting and educationally retarding this can be for deaf children who are forced to depend solely upon oral receptions and expressions! No wonder only the unusual, gifted deaf child succeeds. The loudest advocates of “demutization” are teachers and theorists who have no firsthand knowledge of living among the deaf. They seldom have anything to do with the deaf after they reach adulthood, when the effects of “oralism” could be better gauged. Few are the deaf adults themselves who look back upon their pure oral schooling and wholeheartedly endorse the method. Another point is that mental health, during these rigidly suppressed school years, is hardly taken into consideration. For all deaf children, acquiring a good deal of knowledge and developing language skills are measures exceedingly more important toward full citizenship. Language skills are best learned through free usage; they evolve and expand in an atmosphere of freedom, as with hearing children.

Full freedom is provided under the concept called TOTAL COMMUNICATION. It recognizes the deaf child’s foremost need to develop higher language competence. It realizes his right to learn and to use, from the earliest age possible, all forms of communication available. Total Communication, therefore, embraces the full spectrum of language modes: Child devised gestures, formal sign language, finger spelling, speech, “lip-reading,” reading and writing. It also uses hearing amplifications to utilize any residual hearing. Continued research by enlightened educators of the deaf have proved beyond doubt that Total Communication is the most progressive system ever devised for educating the deaf. Children have shown dramatic improvements in grade (or class) levels, reading comprehension, speech, syntax, exchanging ideas and, in general, interacting with others as well as with their environment.

Perhaps I should cite personal experience at our former mission school in Ibadan, Nigeria. The official language, English, was taught from the first year. After the third year, the vernacular was added twice weekly as a subject. The public schools syllabus was adapted, replacing subjects like music with more language courses. Total Communication, then known as the Combined Method, was employed though we lacked the trained personnel and equipment to implement, as we very much desired, speech and lip-reading too. Yet, congenitally deaf children finished our primary school in six years, as did their hearing counterparts. Several earned the coveted “Primary School Leaving Certificate.” Without any training in speech or lip-reading, most went on to government trade schools for three years artisan courses. All passed the intermediate Grade II certificate exam; some passed the more difficult London City and Guild exam. All found jobs in the public and private sectors on their own merits. Surprisingly, several are applying for and passing Grade I promotional exam. All are aware that education is a continuing process. Many, therefore, frequent libraries and/or take correspondence courses with an eye on Gallaudet College. One girl has taken a dental hygienist’s course abroad. Another is attending a theological seminary where she must also tackle Greek and Hebrew. And the relationships of our graduates with their families are no less than those who were orally trained. Again, I should stress that most of these young people are pre-lingually deaf and lack formal training In speech and lip-reading. All attribute their success to their extra content learning and language capability. Our former students’ attainments are unmatched anywhere in West Africa where “oralism” and the vernacular are stressed, where the schools are better financed and equipped and where, in at least one case, the entire teaching staff has been trained overseas.

For developing countries, certain facts and procedures should be convincingly clear. Progress beyond primary school and a practical trade course is hardly possible with a weak foundation–or no foundation–in the official language. Therefore, the national rather than local language should be utilized; Total Communication should be emphasized and the curriculum designed for ordinary children should be adapted, with more stress upon language development. Full citizenship, we believe, would then be better enhanced during school years.

V. The Problem of Spiritual and Moral Training

Education alone is not enough for full-or good-citizenship. African government leaders realize this. They are alarmed at the steady decaying of morals, even among the highly educated. They sense a need for spiritual weakening. Recently Ghana’s head of state bluntly urged his countrymen to worship God, and the Governor of Nigeria’s North Central State is reported to have said: “Education without a corresponding reverence for God can have no lasting benefit either for the individual or for society.”

Deaf individuals are no exception. Like our hearing counterparts we are created in three parts –spirit, mind and body–according to the Word of God. All three parts are essential functions of the whole person. But, alas, the latter two parts are ardently developed, while the first is too often neglected! People try to fill their empty spirit with all sorts of immoralities and they fail to find lasting satisfaction. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the answer. He loves. He saves. He satisfies. He keeps. Of the three parts, note the prominence given the spirit by the Holy Ghost in I Thessalonians 5:23 – “and the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole SPIRIT and SOUL and BODY be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Only through Jesus Christ are there truly lasting benefits for the individual and society. Deaf individuals included! What could be a better time to aid them spiritual and morally than during their formative school years? And the best sources for such help are Godly parents, Bible-believing churches and Scripture-related programs in schools–perhaps in that order.

With the world split to the core morally, let us advocate full as well as good citizenship for all the deaf.


Our attitudes and practices during deaf children’s school years can mean much toward full citizenship. In developing countries, the most pressing needs are more educational program and special personnel. Massive financial aid is also needed and must corn primarily from the governments concerned; for their own societies will reap the dividend eventually. In school, deaf children should be taught by Total Communication, plus the official language of their country. Together, they enhance the deaf child’s normal development, versatility in communication and meaningful interaction with others as well as his environment. Finally, the deaf child’s learning, should be capped with adequate provisions for his moral and spiritual development, beginning in the home.

Of course, I realize that other significant points cannot be covered in this paper, such as research, family relationship, information, social life and more about curriculum. However, I hope those treated will stimulate discussions, inquiries and dissemination, especially in developing lands.