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Cochlear Implants and Sign Language: Building Foundations for Effective Educational Practices

When the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center established the Cochlear Implant Education Center (CIEC) in the fall of 2000, 35,000 people worldwide had cochlear implants. Today the number reaches over 160,000 and continues to grow. Over 90 professionals convened at the Kellogg Conference Hotel at Gallaudet University from April 15-17 to participate in a conference organized by the Clerc Center titled, "Cochlear Implants and Sign Language: Building Foundations for Effective Educational Practices."

The purpose of the conference was to bring together professionals from both schools for the deaf and mainstream programs to discuss effective practices that are emerging to meet the needs of children with cochlear implants. Unlike many other conferences on cochlear implants that focus primarily on cochlear implant technology and oral education for children with cochlear implants, the focus of this conference centered on looking at where sign language and Deaf identity fit for children with cochlear implants. Ed Bosso, dean of the Clerc Center, in his opening remarks reminded the audience that there is no one right way to teach children and that we have to look at cognitive and linguistic development in the early stages regardless of what approach or strategy is used.

Presenters and panelists shared viewpoints on research to practice, perspectives from the Deaf community, and discussions about how families make choices and how programs and services address the use of sign language and spoken language. Presenters and panel participants from the Gallaudet community included Ben Bahan, Beth Benedict, John Christiansen, Summer Crider, Tara Downing, Susan Jacoby, Irene Leigh, Julie Mitchiner, Gina Oliva, and Raylene Paludneviciene. From the Clerc Center, Susanne Scott, cochlear implant/bilingual specialist working with the CIEC, and Susan Schatz, ASL coordinator at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, had the opportunity to present on "Establishing an ASL/English Bilingual Program to Meet the Needs of Children with Cochlear Implants."

"The conference gave us an opportunity to explore evolving trends and practices that are emerging in a variety of educational settings throughout the United States," said Debra Nussbaum, coordinator of the CIEC and one of the conference organizers. Dr. Robert Davila, president of Gallaudet University, addressed the audience and shared that we must prepare for the change in demographics of college students of the future and Gallaudet and other colleges need to plan how they will serve those students in the next 15-20 years.

In addition to the numerous presentations, the conference gave participants an opportunity to share their own knowledge, ideas, and experiences working with children (from birth to twelfth grade) with cochlear implants. In work groups they listed strategies and challenges for six issues that are impacting deaf education related to working with children who have cochlear implants. The participants had the opportunity to identify root causes for those issues and to select high-impact strategies they believe will make a difference for each issue. The issues explored were:

  • Medical and educational professionals often do not recommend the full range of language and communication choices to families.
  • ASL/English bilingual education programs (and other programs inclusive of sign language) are typically considered as an option for children with cochlear implants only after a child is unsuccessful in an oral or mainstream program.
  • Professional services and educational programs do not adequately address the needs of children with cochlear implants who have additional disabilities and/or who come from homes where English is not the primary language.
  • There is inadequate representation of a "Deaf perspective" related to children with cochlear implants.
  • Many educators and school administrators lack sufficient knowledge and experience related to cochlear implant technology, realistic outcomes, and strategies to address language and communication development.
  • Professionals supportive of including sign language for children with cochlear implants are often isolated, without the support of a professional network for sharing experiences and strategies, and without funding for possible research and collaboration.

"One of the clear needs that emerged as an outcome of the conference is the importance of having a unified, coordinated network for information sharing and collaboration to move the field forward," said Nussbaum. The CIEC staff will now analyze the data collected from the conference presentations, panel discussions, and work groups to guide the planning for how the Clerc Center can best support collaboration in the field.