Deaf Education Reform:
The Time is NOW!

By Janet DesGeorges

with excerpts from an article by Lawrence Siegel

Do you have time to change the world today? Most of us are happy just to get through the day with at least half of our "To Do" list crossed off. We rarely have the opportunity to look ahead and see how we can improve a system. When we as s, organizations, or society at large seek to create change, we must first understand why there needs to be change, and then we must have a vision of where we want to go. Only from understanding the need and seeing the vision, will passion and commitment flow to seeing change occur.

Recently, as I was sitting at a PTA meeting at our neighborhood school, there was a discussion about maximizing our ability as a school to create educational excellence. These parents of typically hearing kids were demanding that the school, its staff, and curriculum reflect their values as parents to give every opportunity for their children to receive an education that would maximize their child's potential, raise standardized scores, and give their child the ability to reach their dreams and goals in life! Their expectations were that the staff would be qualified, the technology state of the art, and the teacher/student ratio would be at an acceptable number.

What a contrast to the typical IEP meeting for children who are Deaf/hard of hearing where the standard for a child's ized program is described as "appropriate". I know where this word comes from. The Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal mandate for children with disabilities that establishes the benchmark as "appropriate". I also understand that schools are mandated to provide services for children with disabilities and are often underfunded and understaffed. We are often told that the district cannot provide "Cadillac" services, that is, an education that goes above and beyond the requirements of the law. Fine, give me a Chevrolet IEP, just make sure the Chevy has an engine!

But what bothers me as a parent is that the system seems to lack the ability to set the expectations for children who are deaf/hh equal to that of typically hearing children. We are often told as parents that the funding, expertise, and available resources which would require what we as parents see as the most basic needs for our children -to have access to education -is not available..and what is that most basic need for our children? Access to communication!

It is time for us as parents, educators, and deaf/hh consumers to stand together and raise the bar of educational opportunity for deaf/hh children. We must ensure that our children have access to a quality education through appropriate access to communication. The need for deaf education reform has been thoroughly analyzed, discussed, researched and proven through the dismal outcomes of deaf/hh students. ".The one unchanging educational statistic continues to be that deaf/hh children leave school with third-grade reading skills. (Marschark, 1997)"

Fortunately, there has been a new vision for deaf education embodied in the "California Report: Communication Access and Quality Education for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children" and stated in an article in the American Annals of the Deaf by Lawrence Siegel. The following are some excerpts from his article entitled, "The Educational and Communication Needs of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children: A Statement of Principle on Fundamental Educational Change"

"..The need and right to communicate with others, to exchange ideas and thoughts, to discuss the Russian Revolution or one's favorite author or the high salaries of professional athletes, the need to ask a teacher about a math problem--in short, the "right to language"--is a necessity to educational growth and central to the human experience..What parent of a hearing child would tolerate the placement of his or her child in a school where there were no language peers or where the teacher could not communicate directly with that child? What parent would tolerate the inability of the school system to teach basic reading and writing skills, even as we tolerate the inability to develop and enhance a deaf or hard of hearing child's communication skills?"

"The development of a communication-driven educational system is the central proposition of this Statement of Principle, for it is time that deaf and hard of hearing children be included in the vibrant world of communication. Accordingly, this Statement of Principle focuses on four issues:

1. Communication development and access is fundamental to educational and human growth.

2. IDEA, and its conceptual "starting point, " do not recognize of serve the communication needs of deaf and hard of hearing children. Reliance on an existing ized education program (IEP) and due process mechanisms cannot resolve the systemic problem facing deaf and hard of hearing children.

3. Until the system is "communication driven," the unique needs of deaf /hh children will not be fully understood and met, and those children will continue to enter adulthood without the necessary tools for success.

4. A new educational, communication-driven paradigm is required if deaf/hh children are to be served effectively. Such a paradigm would recognize the communication assessment, development, and access (i.e., the presence of a critical mass of peers and language-proficient staff) are central to an effective education delivery system. What would be common for all these children under this new paradigm would be an effective, communication-driven system that meets the needs of all deaf and hard of hearing children, regardless of their communication mode or system or placement requirements"

"Each state will need to develop a communication-based delivery system and must analyze how services and programs are delivered locally and regionally. Given the population distribution, an areawide educational delivery model will be developed that include:

  • A regional delivery system that provides for all program options, including mainstreaming and state school access, as well as other classes that provide a communication-rich environment
  • Oversight responsibility for all programs
  • Regional or areawide advisory councils composed of parents deaf and hard of hearing consumers, students, staff credential in deaf/hh education, and administrators
  • Appropriate staff and staff training to ensure a communication rich program
  • Language/communication specialists to provide staff consultation support and direct services to deaf/hh children.
  • Delivery of appropriate support services to all deaf/hh children within the region or area.
  • Core and specialized curriculum, and acoustically and visually appropriate facilities.
  • Assessment procedures conducted by appropriately trained and knowledgeable s
  • Vocational, college prep, And transitional services
  • Parent training
  • Transportation
  • Coordination with center schools for the deaf, institutions of higher learning, and other appropriate state agencies
  • Provision of services for deaf and hard of hearing students with learning disabilities, emotional difficulties, developmental delays, physical restrictions, and other conditions
  • Opportunities for deaf/hh role models, mentors, and other deaf/hh adults.

". Five placement options would be made available.."

1. Regular classrooms with necessary support services

2. Areawide programs that are developed to specifically provide the necessary critical mass of age, cognitive, and language peers. (editors note: dropping the barriers to program options created by school district boundaries)

3. Center or state schools for the deaf.

4. Areawide programs for deaf/hh children who are multihandicapped.

5. Other program options as necessary and required by law (e.g. in home, hospital)

"For too many years, deaf/hh children and parents and guardians have had to fight, informally and formally, successfully and unsuccessfully, for a right which should not require any struggle at all. To develop language and to be able to communicate is so fundamental as to be beyond argument. Yet the current educational structure, including the governing law, does not effectively and systemically provide for, and in fact discourages, communication growth."rdc

"It is time we summon the spirit to make the educational system work for deaf/hh children, to make that which is fundamental and necessary a clear right, and central to the delivery of educational services."

Cheryl Johnson, the State's consultant on Deafness at the Colorado Dept. of Education, has this to say about Deaf Education: "The future is bright but challenging! Colorado's newborn hearing screening program leading to early identification of hearing loss and appropriate follow-up for amplification and intervention services is beginning to result in children entering preschool with age-appropriate or near age-appropriate language skills. Technology is improving. However, schools will be challenged to continue the momentum started with early intervention. Standards in education are for ALL students. We should expect ALL students who are deaf or hard of hearing to fully participate in their school programs but only when we understand and provide the necessary supports which allow them access to communication and instruction, and promote the development of positive self-concepts."

Colorado is a step ahead of the game, with the passage of the Deaf Child's Bill of Rights, which has established the forum for IEP teams to look at the child's communication needs.

It is now time for us to take this concept one step further, and begin to look at systemic change so that the system itself will carry the banner of a communication-driven philosophy so that every student at the end of their educational day will go home having had full access to the communication in their academic environment, whether signed or spoken, in their neighborhood school or state school, with success in front of them, and the world at their feet!

Janet DesGeorges is the Executive Director of Hands & Voices. Janet lives in Boulder, CO with her husband and three children. Her youngest daughter Sara is hard of hearing.

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