Iowa Board of Regents

ISD - Embracing Deaf Culture

Language deprivation, or sustained underexposure to linguistic stimuli, is a common problem for children born deaf or hard of hearing. Without language to immerse themselves in, these kids will often lag behind their peers in terms of interpersonal communication and early childhood learning. Their lack of hearing has a spiraling effect that can last the rest of their lives.

Because of our near-constant exposure to language, most of us have basic interpersonal communication skills down by the time we reach five years old. Kids that are deaf or hard of hearing don’t get that easy exposure and often miss out on that development time.

“Their language has been hard to come by,” said John Cool, assistant administrator at the Iowa School for the Deaf (ISD) in Council Bluffs. “They’re capable, but they just don’t have access to it. If they’re here and entrenched in campus, they’re getting language all the time.”

That language is American Sign Language (ASL) and students enrolled at ISD are immersed in it from the time they arrive on campus. Fostering a language-rich environment for children who are deaf or hard of hearing improves interpersonal communication and learning outcomes and helps unwind that spiraling effect from lack of exposure. 

“We believe students deserve a safe and nurturing environment to develop a sense of self,” Cool said. “At ISD, children have an opportunity to mingle with and be impacted by every person in their environment because we can all communicate with them.”

It’s not just the environment that helps these kids develop. Curriculum at ISD meets the same requirements of any other public school, with the added benefit of ASL exposure and teachers who can provide direct instruction. ISD employs a number of hearing faculty as well, allowing faculty members to team up and teach students on the full continuum of language.

“We continue to be the most viable option for students that are deaf or hard of hearing and who rely on manual communications for direct instruction,” Cool said. “That’s not something students can usually get in local school districts.”
Local districts are not able to expose students to deaf culture, either. Embracing ASL, a language with its own syntax and grammar, is one aspect of deaf culture that ISD provides.

“We intentionally talk about deaf culture here,” Cool said. “It’s not a class, but we do talk about it. Children who come to ISD are going to be exposed to other deaf people, the language and the culture. They will make the choice about whether or not to become part of the community.”

The Deaf Culture Celebration, held each spring, is one example of ISD’s commitment to exposing deaf and hard of hearing children to the wider world of deaf culture. Previous years have seen deaf presenters perform workshops in celebration of the culture. Several deaf comedians, deaf artists and storytellers provided entertainment for all the attendees. Even Nyle DiMarco, Season 22 winner of Dancing with the Stars and graduate of the Maryland School for the Deaf, made an appearance.

“We have this celebration every year,” Cool said. “It’s important for these kids to have exposure to and the opportunity to be immersed in the language and the culture. Just being in this kind of environment is often enough to help these kids figure out who they are and who they want to become.”

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