Special Education requires special communication


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  "There are many places in this world where no one has even heard of special education. Families simply take care of their children the best they can. What's a family to do when nobody in the family knows sign language and nobody has ever seen a communication device?"


You talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?" This expression extols the virtues of action over mere communication. Being a language specialist, I hold talking—and the entire act of communicating—as perhaps the most important skill a person can acquire.

In fact, communication skills involve far more than mere talking. Talking is the output mode which, to be fully operational in a communicative sense, requires the input mode to be fully developed. That is, you have to be able to listen!

Recently in the news there has been a heart wrenching story about a "deaf mute" from Oaxaca, Mexico who had come to California to work in the fields. This women was so isolated by her lack of communication skills that she gave birth in a filthy dog pen, apparently almost killed her newborn child, and was facing possible prosecution for attempted murder. Can you imagine what it is like to be a "deaf mute", pregnant (reportedly from a rape), and in a foreign country working in the fields?

Now in the United States, if a child is deaf or hard of hearing, special education services are provided. Whether or not the child ever learns to talk, the child is taught some means of communicating. Deaf children are taught to communicate through adaptive methods, commonly sign language or communication devices, frequently associated with learning to talk and referred to as "Total Communication."

However, there are many places in this world where no one has even heard of special education. Families simply take care of their children the best they can. What's a family to do when nobody in the family knows sign language and nobody has ever seen a communication device?

Contrast this women's plight with that of Christopher Reeves. Certainly there is a huge difference in socioeconomic status, history and opportunity. However, if you take the comparison down to the basic functioning, you have one person who is connected to the world around him via communication skills, while the other has apparently been so cut off from any support system that she can not even advise her companions that she needs a safe place to give birth. This young woman may not even have known she was pregnant. If you have no communication skills, are you going to be able to figure this out on your own?

The ability to communicate is a very big deal. Without it, you live to a large extent in social isolation. Poor communications make governments run amok. One may tremble to think that the intelligence community would excuse itself by saying, in the style of Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is failure to communicate." It can lead to big time trouble!

It always makes me chuckle when people say, "We need to improve our communication," meaning let's put out better advertising. Communication is so much more than that. It is the tool with which we connect with our fellow human beings and that which we use to accomplish many a task. Our own language, with which we even talk to ourselves, provides us with the ability to contemplate things like these. We can even talk about talking, referred to as metalinguistics, a behavior which delineates humankind from our animal friends.

Add to that the fact that we communicate in more ways than one. We write and we read. We use facial expression, gestures, and body language. This is not mere "lip service." We throw our whole body into it!

There comes a time, when mere talking isn't really good enough, and you must take action.

Mere lip service is a teacher who talks about parental involvement. Action makes a commitment; "I'll come by and pick you up."

Mere lip service is a politician saying, "Let's agree to disagree." Action takes the information and considers the perspective, and allows it to change his belief system by one small iota.

Mere lip service is a principal who directs the staff to speak with the students about litter. Action teaches by example, automatically scooping up the trash and tossing it into the trash can.

Whether you communicate via email, snail mail, the spoken word, sign language, or whatever, communication must be at least a 2-way street, if not a complete traffic circle! In the words of Dr. Melfi of "The Sopranos", "Two ears one mouth! Listen to each other!"

Sandra Nichols is past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

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© Sandra Nichols 2004