Parents as Advocates in a
Child’s Education


By Holly and Robert Ferguson,
North Dakota H&V

The original IEP placed me in ‘special education’ at the public school despite no other learning concerns – I was just deaf.

As Deaf parents of two deaf sons, we were surprised how smooth the transition was for our boys to become dual students of both our neighborhood school and also the North Dakota school for the Deaf when we moved from Colorado and the state school for the deaf there. Once their IEPs had been established, the teachers, interpreters and school administrators seemed to effortlessly set up the programs at both schools for our sons. We know we have our own parents and other deaf children’s parents to thank for paving the path ahead for us in making this possible. We as parents are always our child’s advocate when it comes to their education.

Robert: When I was in elementary school, my parents fought for me to mainstream at a local public school in their hometown once I decided that I wanted to live at home with my parents instead of attending the Texas School for the Deaf, a full ten hours away.

The original IEP placed me in ‘special education’ at the public school despite no other learning concerns – I was just deaf. My parents felt that special education placement was not appropriate and determined that I should be enrolled in a regular education program with other students my age. The deaf program available in my hometown was mostly using MSS (Morphemic Sign System) which, back in those days, based signs on exact English words, making butterfly into signs for “butter” and “fly” together. My parents had to use legal means to pave the road for me to be mainstreamed in the public school system using an interpreter proficient in American Sign Language. My parents had a difficult road, but in the long run, I achieved all of my academic goals and graduated from a rigorous program at the public high school using an interpreter for all classes and extracurricular activities. 

Holly: When I was a toddler, I was placed in a preschool special education classroom at the public school in a tiny rural town. My parents decided to move me to Minot, which had a mostly oral program for deaf children.  Eventually, the teachers advised my parents that due to my severe to profound hearing loss, I would need sign language for communicative means instead of learning through only an oral education program. My family once again moved to Devils Lake to enroll me at the North Dakota School for the Deaf. There, Signing Exact English and American Sign Language were the primary languages taught to deaf students. As hearing parents, my parents had no experience with deafness or sign language prior to having me, so they found their own way to what they thought would be the best education for me. I began to partly mainstream in fifth grade, and continued through mainstreaming to the end of my senior year using sign language interpreters and notetakers in public school classrooms.

As parents of two young deaf children now ourselves, we have to go through similar decision processes that our own parents faced when we were identified as deaf.  Some decisions are easy; others are hard.  We knew our boys were doing very well in reading and writing, and we thought their exposure to interpreting from church, YMCA programs, and various events showed us that they knew how to use interpreters even at their young age. We thought they would be ready for the challenge of being around more peers their age and learning the similar information in specific subjects. The deaf school had a small enrollment, so mainstreaming was also a way for our sons to learn along with the peers in our part of town, both in academics and in socialization.

We were fortunate to have some input into the choice of interpreters since we are both employees of the deaf school. Our younger son is still learning to advocate for himself, but we have worked out a plan with both boys to regularly check in with them about how school is going learning through interpreters. Finally, the Communications Department at the deaf school has documents to share with a teacher who is welcoming a deaf student into a mainstream class. We keep in regular touch with them by email and Robert gave a presentation for each class during Deaf Awareness week about Deaf Culture and American Sign Language. 

We found that the choice to dually enroll in both the neighborhood school and the state school for the deaf went much more smoothly than our parents had to face. In the past schools would argue about whose responsibility it was to pay for interpreter services or such. We are grateful to all the parents before us who had to fight for the rights of their deaf students in the education system, and all the bumps they endured for future deaf children to have choices in education.

It is always our responsibility be our children’s advocates with their education and their rights.  We may reach out when we need advice, but when we feel something is right for our kids, we have to stand strong instead of being passive and allowing others to choose a setting we don’t feel is appropriate. Others may want to label our children with “special education” when it is not necessary.  Always do what is right for your child so that he/she will thrive and be their best.

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