Korea’s hearing-impaired students long for some sign language

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Korea’s hearing-impaired students long for some sign language

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Graduates of a school for the hearing-impaired sign the message: “Please recognize sign language as a language.” Korean sign language shares similarities with both the Japanese and Taiwanese sign languages. By Shin In-seop


It’s time for an English lesson for nine hearing-impaired seniors at a special education school in Seoul.

The teacher introduces a new vocabulary word. “A present!” he announces.

One of the students, an 18-year-old who didn’t want to be identified in print, raises his hand and requests in sign language: “I would like to study written English.”

The teacher’s response is a single, spoken word: “Talk!” Then she resumes the 50-minute lesson, not once using sign language.

After classes end at 4:30 p.m., the ignored student rushes to a study hall and asks a different teacher, in sign language, what the vocabulary word was.

The teacher explains in sign language.

“A present?” signs the student. “Like what you get on your birthday?”

The best way to educate hearing impaired young people is debated around the world. Sign language is the predominant method in the West because it’s a deeper and richer way to communicate than lip reading and mimicking speech, the auditory-oral method also called oralism.

But there’s no debate at all for hearing impaired Korean students. Oralism is the preferred form of instruction because it supposedly leads to greater integration of handicapped and non-handicapped people. Sign language is considered too exclusive and ostracizing.

As a result, of the 156 special education teachers in Seoul, only five percent know sign language, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government Office of Education. Seriously hearing impaired students sit through classes in which they understand nothing: They can’t hear the lessons.

Some hearing impaired students shun special schools altogether and go to regular schools that offer no special treatment for the handicapped. Of 3,334 hearing-impaired students in Korea, 70 percent went to regular schools in 2012.

“Culturally, Korea is not very accepting of anyone different and historically it has not been very embracing of the disabled,” Kim Hyun-cheol, planning department manager of the Korea Association of the Deaf, told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “That’s why special education for the hearing impaired has been focused on speaking therapy and ignoring sign language on the excuse that it ‘obstructs the ability to listen and speak.’ It’s thought of as a means to help integrate the hearing-impaired into non-handicapped society.”

“Visually impaired students should definitely learn through Braille and hearing-impaired students through sign language,” admitted Kim Joo-hee, a teacher who does know sign language. “But because they don’t have classes conducted in sign language, their learning pace is held back. The high school seniors’ academic levels are so low they’re at the standard of lower middle school levels.”

There has been a long debate about oralism versus manualism, or using sign language, in education for the hearing impaired. Oralism was popular in the United States in the latter 19th century.

But currently in the U.S., all instructors for the hearing-impaired are required to know sign language, while in Germany sign language is recognized as an official language. Likewise, classes for the hearing impaired in the United States, Finland and Germany are almost always conducted in sign language.

“In America,” said Ahn Jeong-shin, 37, who graduated from Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in Washington DC, “there is no difference in education for the hearing-impaired students from regular students except for the fact that classes are conducted in sign language.”

In Korea’s special education divisions of its education colleges, sign language is not a required subject. And because there’s such a lack of educators proficient in sign language, sometimes students step up as sign language interpreters during class time.

Han Jeong-ah, 21, who graduated from a special education school for the hearing-impaired, said, “In class time, I interpreted for other students in sign language after lip reading what the teacher was saying.”

Korea’s emphasis on oralism over sign language has also led to a craze for cochlear implants for the hearing-impaired, since any improvement in the hearing ability helps. It is also considered a high-tech solution. Some parents give their hearing-impaired children implants from as early as two years old.

But experts warn against relying on the implants.

“Receiving cochlear implants may help to hear some sounds,” said Kim of the Korea Association of the Deaf. “But in reality, we don’t know what kind of sounds they will be - car honks or coherent words. It takes at least three to five years of treatment to adjust to the implants.” Some people never really adjust, Kim said.

“Sign language is important for sure,” said Professor Kwon Mi-ji, speech and language therapy specialist at Nambu University in Gwangju. “But in order be involved in society, there is a need to also learn oralism.”

Civic organizations such as the Korea Association of the Deaf have advocated Korea recognizing sign language as a legitimate language. But they say there’s a long way to go.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology said in April, “We will make all hearing-impaired school teachers be required to have sign language qualification within three years.”

By Song Ji-young, Sarah Kim [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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