An interview with Ms Justyna Michaliszyn, who decided to sue the School and Education Center for Deaf Children in Poznań. The reason for the lawsuit is audism or discrimination against deaf people by hearing people.
[Maciej Joniuk] Hello, how are you today?
[Justyna Michaliszyn] I’m great, thank you.
I will be interviewing Justyna Michaliszyn today. What is your sign language symbol?
My sign language symbol is… (shows the symbol).
First of all, I would like to thank you for meeting with us today. We will be talking about a sad situation – you will be able to tell us more in a moment. Some of you know the story, some do not. So, let’s talk. What kind of problems have you faced?
The problem is that my deaf children have difficulty communicating with their teachers at the Educational and Upbringing Center for Deaf Children in Poznań. My children use the Polish Sign Language (PJM) only, but the Center’s staff refuse to use it and rely solely on the Manually Coded Language (System Językowo-Migowy – SJM). Some teachers do not use any sign language at all, they only communicate by speaking. I visited the headmistress on numerous occasions, asking to solve the problem, but she kept refusing. And this is the problem I am facing.
That’s a sad story – children are not able to learn freely in their language. What do you intend to do about it?
I want the problem to be heard. I want the school to allow children to learn in the language they need. I’m not talking about my children only, but also about other deaf children who need to learn using PJM. I think that children deprived of that opportunity are “language prisoners”. In my opinion, children have the right to learn using the Polish Sign Language. That’s why I am willing to continue the fight.
Together with your husband, you intend to file a lawsuit accusing the Center of audism. Was that your plan, or do you feel forced to do so because of your children?
I truly intend to file a lawsuit accusing the school of audism. It has been going on for too long, for years. My kids need to learn in their own language, and the school keeps refusing to comply. Children are tired, they have trouble communicating with teachers and do not develop correctly. The time has come to put an end to this. I cannot leave it like that, I need to take the case to court.
Can you give us examples of those unpleasant situations that took place in kindergarten or at school?
It’s a long story, but I’ll try to keep it short. The problem dates back to 2012 or 2013. My eldest daughter came back from school and complained she had difficulty understanding what the lessons were all about. She asked me what “steam” meant (showing the sign for “couple, two people, partner” – a word that is pronounced in Polish in the same way as “steam”). I was surprised that the teachers were using such a system. I took a look at her notes and it occurred to me that she was talking about “steam” (showing the PJM sign depicting the vaporization of water). Can the Manually Coded Language System (SJM) be relied upon to teach well? No!
That’s why I talked to the headmistress and informed her that SJM is a problem, as the teachers are misleading children. She was not interested in the issue. That’s just the beginning of many problems.
I have another example from my son’s school. One of the teachers did not know how to explain the word “to deceive”, so he used the word “to lie”. Is the meaning of “deceiving” and “lying” the same? No. Being his mother, I had to explain to him the difference between those two words. Why don’t teachers working with children know how to explain that?
One more story. My youngest son is in kindergarten, but the staff are not proficient in using sign language. They have trouble communicating with children. They mislead the kids. In some situations children thought they were not allowed to do something, while it was not the case. Why is that? The lack of communication and of a common language is the key problem here. Many more similar situations took place as well.
What are your relations with the teachers and with the school’s management?
The truth is that my relations with the management are not good, we have difficulty communicating, as the headmistress is using SJM, and I need to adapt. This is not my language, PJM is my natural language. And the head of the entire Center is not using any sign language at all. That’s why I’m facing a communication barrier while talking to the management. One day I decided to meet the headmistress and take advantage of a PJM interpreter. She was surprised by the interpreter’s presence. She wanted to ask him out of her office. I did not agree to that, stating I had the right to an interpreter and said I wanted him to stay. It was an unpleasant situation.
During the conversation, she said that children need to learn to speak instead of using sign language. She gave me the following example: what if your child needed to buy something, but could not ask for it, as they cannot speak? And I said that all you need to do is to write it down or point to it with your finger. She said that it’s a shame to behave like that. One should speak or ask for an interpreter in a shop. How did I feel when I heard that? Terrible. It’s pure discrimination.
A terrible story. Are you the only deaf parent having difficult relations with the management? Do other deaf parents face the same problem? How do they react?
I know other parents have the same problem. Their situation is the same, but they prefer not to be in the spotlight, they want to stay quiet. They talked to the headmistress, but that’s all. I cannot force them to do anything, it’s their decision, but I know their problems are the same as mine.
Language-related problems make the children suffer at school, they are not willing to get up in the morning and go to school. Did you consider changing the school?
Yes, I thought about that. I visited an educational counseling center to discuss this issue with experts. They said my kids could not attend a school integrating healthy and disabled children, as they are deaf, and the conditions would not be suitable for them. An educational and upbringing center for deaf children is the only solution. I was considering a different city. I submitted an application to a different center, but they had no free places. I was helpless. There’s no other way out and my kids have to stay at that school.
How are your children coping with that unpleasant situation?
After all I have been through, I am really tired and disheartened. I miss the school’s support. It’s difficult to describe my feelings. I feel really terrible. My kids feel the same way, it’s even more tiring for them, as they attend that school. They suffer, they need my help and ask me for assistance. I try to help them, but cannot do that because of the management’s decision.
As a mother, you were the first to react to the situation. Others failed to do so. What is your advice for the parents of deaf children? How can they help them?
I think parents in a similar situation should react. Why is that? Because your child’s well-being is at stake here. I think they should react, just like I did.
There are many vlogs on Facebook or YouTube with people who went to that school talking about similar situations. Do you have the support of some associations or institutions?
It’s true, the vlogs show that many people have the same problem. The management (of the Center) claims no problem exists, they say I am the only one having a problem. It turns out this is not the case. We receive a lot of support from the “Gest” association. I am very grateful for that. I feel relieved not to be alone. I am also supported by my friends who graduated from that school. I feel truly relieved.
How did the teachers and the management react when they learned you intended to sue them for audism?
I met the headmistress, my impression was she was indifferent, and the teachers were offended and outraged. They refused to talk to me, did not even acknowledge my presence. But not all of them, it all depends on the person. I knew they would react that way.
Do you have any dreams concerning the future of deaf children?
My dream is that they can be educated well, in a manner that is suitable for their specific needs and capabilities, and in their own language. I know this will not change anytime soon, but I hope that change will come in the future.
Are there any teachers at the Center who are fluent in PJM (Polish Sign Language)?
Yes, there are a few who are fluent in PJM. For example, the one teaching my son Polish. As the instructions are given in PJM, the effects are really visible, the results have improved a lot. In the past, my son had difficulty understanding Polish. He had problems texting me. We only talked through video chat. It has changed now. He knows how to write a text message. This is because the teacher uses PJM. That’s what it’s all about.
My daughter is in a similar situation. When she was learning at the Center, in SJM, she did not understand much of it. When she moved to a school at Łucka street in Warsaw, she was delighted, was learning in PJM and was really expanding her knowledge. The level of teaching was high because of PJM. PJM is very much needed. I think that other kids need PJM too, that’s why it is worth fighting for the right to learn in PJM. The hearing people learn in their own language, the deaf have the right to do so as well.
You talked about very sad and unpleasant situations taking place at the Center. If you share similar experiences, Thank you.