Memphis Oral School for the Deaf [MOSD] was featured in a Daily Memphian news article yesterday, which discussed the methods MOSD intends to use when they reopen next week. For those who are not familiar, oral schools typically have the child work on learning how to lipread the adult and how to use their hearing aid/cochlear implant(s) at the same time. The idea of faculty and staff using masks to cover their mouths full-time, however, is a significant barrier for the children. 

Abigail Warren of Daily Memphian wrote, “Some teachers are wearing face shields during class. Students learn listening skills but sometimes verify what they heard with lip reading. Teachers also will cover their mouths to make students use their ears. Additionally, masks can muffle and distort sounds. Sound fields in classrooms will aid instruction.” This is a common method at oral schools. 

Auditory Verbal Therapy, one of the LSL approaches, focuses heavily on using auditory cues and learning through listening (for more information, read the University of South Florida’s link). Many community members who primarily use ASL believe that Listening and Spoken Languages [LSL] is not the way to go for children, and some argue that teachers who use this approach is a form of child abuse. Regan Thibodeau, a Certified Deaf Interpreter [CDI], created a public video where she shows why masks do not work, even those with clear mouth inserts in the middle.

Before putting on a mask Thibodeau stated, “I have absolutely no prejudice against oral schools for the Deaf.” Thibodeau goes on to express anger not because the children are attending an oral school, but because the struggle she knows the children will experience with faculty and staff wearing masks: “Those children already struggle just to comprehend and now you say that you will force them to wear masks? (Anger increases.) They already have a hard enough time as it is just being students in an oral school and now you want to throw masks on top of that?” (Transcript by Garrett Zuercher).

There were various responses to the MOSD’s share of the Daily Memphian’s article. Mary-Katherine Corban Werner stated her thoughts of support: “This school is a blessing to our community. My daughter isn’t ‘deaf’ yet and may not turn out to be that way. She has CMV which results in hearing loss and frequencies that could impact her learning abilities because she is at such a young age. She can hear typical conversation just has trouble with different frequencies. We don’t need to learn ASL at this point- we may in the future but why would I send her to a school that only focuses on ASL if she is able to hear now???”

Several users with different perspectives responded to Werner’s comment, including Jeffrey Frady. Frady said that he doesn’t know Warner and doesn’t want to judge but as a hard of hearing individual himself, he believes this school sounds horrible: “I’m in complete shock the more I learn about it.” 

A petition was created on yesterday on August 6, 2020 with the objective to close down MOSD, citing that the long-term effects of oralism “often manifest in personality issues and PTSD.” CM, the petition creator, additionally wrote: “Please, sign this so that we can do our best to prevent this terrible facility from reopening it’s doors and forcing obsolete 19th century practices upon non-hearing students.” There are now over 1,000 signatures.

In Kavita Pipalia’s Facebook share of the petition, she declared her opinion: 

“Communication abusive! Deprivation! Do u accept this? I don’t!! This is not acceptable!!! It is 2020! We need you to take action by signing this petition!” 

As the California Association of the Deaf [CAD] shared the petition on their Facebook wall as well, it appears that the CAD endorses the petition (screenshot included). Pipalia, who is the current CAD President, commented that stakeholders should contact the Tennessee Association of the Deaf [TAD] to find out whether action is being taken and reach out to the National Association of the Deaf next. Deaf Vee Journal contacted the TAD and received no response. 

SB 210, which was California’s landmark LEAD-K bill passed in 2015, focused on data collection of language milestones for deaf and hard of hearing children who use “both or one of the languages of American Sign Language (ASL) and English.” SB 210 clarified that English “includes spoken English, written English, or English with the use of visual supplements.” SB 210 was written in such a way that deaf and hard of hearing children who were in LSL programs would not be excluded (screenshot shown).

As the CAD reportedly supported the SB 210 bill and now has shared the petition mentioned above on their official Facebook page, some Deaf California residents anonymously told Deaf Vee Journal this seems to be contradictory and they struggle to understand why the CAD would do so. The residents voiced their concern that the CAD’s petition share may be alienating hearing families of children who are currently in LSL programs to the point where the families may lose any interest in learning more about ASL, Deaf culture, and the Deaf community. 

When asked why CAD did a public share of the petition, Papila responded: “LEAD-K is about language acquisition. If there are any barriers to reaching language milestones, it automatically hurts the Deaf child’s development. Wearing masks to force children to access language, based on hearing, is a clear barrier.”

Thibodeau told Deaf Vee Journal that she is hoping that MOSD transforms rather than shuts down. When asked about possible solutions, she said, “Plexiglass barriers are a good idea, not sure if that’s anti reflective so not sure about that.” Plexiglass barriers are what you see at grocery stores or banks, and it is a physical see-through wall between two people.

In response to Jordan Jones’ question as a comment below MOSD’s Facebook share of the Daily Memphian article regarding why MOSD has not looked into other options, such as clear masks, apparently MOSD explained that their teachers will be “exclusively using clear face shields with protective covering” (screenshot shown below).

As for parent choice states (it is our understanding that Tennessee is a parent choice state), Thibodeau has a separate vlog where she discusses her opinion and emphasizes how important it is to provide a variety of language options for deaf and hard of hearing children. She expounds on how beneficial it is for the child when the child is able to communicate with multiple people in different modes of communication including oralism, cued speech, ASL, and any other signed methods. Thibodeau says, “Why choose only one?” 

Deaf Vee Journal contacted Lauren Hays, MOSD’s Executive Director, for their official statement: 

Memphis Oral School for the Deaf serves a large need in our community for early intervention services for children who are deaf and hard of hearing ages birth-5. MOSD programs focus on the intense early identification, amplification, and intervention to help children gain the foundational listening skills to help them learn. Children have a very short few years in which the brain can develop spoken language and we do our best to help each child reach their individual potential in this particular area. 

95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents and parent-child interactions are critical for a child’s success. MOSD supports the family’s choice for intervention and the mode that will help the child in the family environment be most successful.  

Every child at MOSD has a varying degree of hearing loss. Some children were born completely deaf. Others have a unilateral, mild hearing loss. Some children have/had access to natural sound. Others have not. All of our children wear hearing devices (cochlear implant, hearing aid, or BAHA). Audiological advancements have made it possible for children to access sound early in life. Early identification, amplification, and intervention help children build those foundational listening skills in order to develop spoken language.

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to make adjustments with PPE equipment and our teachers are exclusively using face shields with draped protective fabric while teaching. The children are very much encouraged to speak. It’s not ideal to have them wear a mask, but it is what is safest at the present time. We can use an FM mic under the face shield and a sound field so the sounds are not distorted in the classroom.

MOSD is respectful of other philosophies in the Deaf community. We have been collaborators with the Common Ground Initiative and in the West TN taskforce to bring ASL intervention to the 0-3 population where services are lacking. All modes and methods should be available and accessible to parents of children who are deaf and hard of hearing. We serve as one of the pathways a family can take in the hearing loss journey.

Hays went on to add: “The [Daily Memphian] article in particular is strictly about our reopening safety procedures we will be taking. The article in no way attacks other philosophies or methods of learning. We encourage the respect of individuals of other philosophies as we have shown a concerted effort to display the same level of respect to others.” 

Deaf Vee Journal reached out to Bridges, a nonprofit organization that provides services for local Deaf community residents in the state of Tennessee. Nancy Denning-Martin, Bridges’ Chief Executive Officer, responded to our inquiry with a statement:

We are always concerned about and advocating for communication access for our D/deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing communities. The masks that help keep us safe during this pandemic have created yet another barrier for our community. Both lip reading and reading facial cues and expressions that are part of the tone and grammar of American Sign Language are essential for our community. Masks muffle sound for those relying on cochlear implants or other assistive listening devices. We advocate for the use of clear masks and modified face shields to protect our health and our community’s right to equal access, but in a classroom with young children, the communication access is even more complicated. The same tools that work for access for adults may not work for children, and the children’s needs and rights are the priority. 

We have a strong, diverse community of the culturally Deaf, those with cochlear implants, and those who use a variety of communication modes. In our community, we support the choice of the deaf individual but strongly believe that all deaf children should have American Sign Language. Language deprivation, not hearing loss, causes language delays, and we are proud of the rich language and culture of the community we serve. 

Denning-Martin asked us to emphasize that since BridgesWEST and/or Bridges has not had any contact with MOSD since their new Memphis office opened, they have no direct knowledge of this situation or its facts.

Located in Germantown, Tennessee, Memphis Oral School for the Deaf is an oral school established in 1959 for deaf and hard of hearing children in pre-kindergarten.