Educational Impacts and Cultural Perspectives

By Leeanne Seaver, M.A.,



Some Historical Perspective: The All Handicapped Children Act, which was passed in 1975, created programs of special education for students with disabilities.  It evolved through the next 15 years, emerging as The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990.  The purpose of special education was and is to "ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free and appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living." (IDEA 20 U.S.C. 1400 (d) (1) Students with special needs were eligible starting at age three through high school graduation under Part B of the law.  (Part C of IDEA, which came into law in the 1990s, covers special needs entitlements for the birth to three population.) 

Eligibility requirements as defined by IDEA essentially dictated that the student 1) had to have a disability and 2) he or she had to need specialized instruction.  The determination of what that specialized instruction should look like was to be made by special education teacher(s), the student's parents or guardians, and others who would be working directly with the student, (like speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists, psychologists, etc...).  This group would function as a team to create a document called the "Individual Education Program" (IEP) that set forth the academic goals and objectives for the student, based on his/her unique, individual needs.

The Impact of IDEA:  IDEA enabled many students who were deaf or hard of hearing to attend the school in their own area, rather than board at the state's residence school for the deaf, which up until that time had been a traditional placement for many deaf students.  Beyond that, there was no obligation for public schools to accept students with disabilities who were considered to be "uneducable", or too difficult to educate.  Their right to receive a "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE) was now an IDEA entitlement at whatever public school they would normally attend, based on where they lived.  However, local education agencies (school districts) often found themselves unprepared for the special needs of this population.  There was "not widespread understanding of the educational implications of deafness, even among special educators." (Deaf Policy Guidance Report, 1992)  Further, given the low incidence of deafness, there wasn't always a critical mass of students to justify the existence of a program and staff with expertise in deafness or hearing loss.  The solution for many school districts was to place deaf students in special education classrooms where other special needs (to use a term from those days, "retarded") children were taught.  Academic expectations in many "self-contained" settings were homogenized and typically set so even the lowest achiever could accomplish them.  For deaf and hard-of-hearing students with normal cognitive abilities, this dynamic set in motion a trend of underachievement that has not been successfully reversed even today.

The Inclusion Movement:  The spirit and the letter of the IDEA law did not support the practice of segregating students with special needs exclusively into "self-contained" classrooms, but the practice was so common that many parents, advocacy groups and even some philosophically-aligned professionals protested vehemently.  The call for "inclusion" of disabled students into general education classrooms was a powerful movement that swept the nation in the 1990s.  Founded on the IDEA provision that "to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities....are educated with children who are non-disabled" (IDEA Sec. 300.550 (b) (1)  " close as possible to the child's the school that he or she would attend if non-disabled." (Sec. 300.552 (b) (3) & (c)  This placement is considered the "least restrictive environment" (LRE) for students with special needs, but in fact, for many students who were deaf or hard of hearing, it created an environment of extreme isolation with no direct communication access to teachers or peers.

The Communication Gap:  In 1992, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) published the "Deaf Students Education Services Policy Guidance" in response to a 1988 report by the Commission on Education of the Deaf.  This Commission report expressed concerns over the provision of FAPE for students who were deaf who had "significant obstacles to overcome in order to have access to FAPE, particularly with regard to communication access."  The Policy Guidance intended to give direction to state and local education agencies on FAPE for students who were deaf or hard of hearing.   It called for the consideration of certain factors in the development of an IEP for any student who was deaf, including:

  1. Communication needs and the child's and family's preferred mode of communication;
  2. Linguistic needs;
  3. Severity of hearing loss and potential for using residual hearing;
  4. Academic level; and
  5. Social, emotional, and cultural needs, including opportunities for peer interactions and communication.

The Deaf Students Policy Guidance additionally recommended that the child's needs be identified by professionals who were knowledgeable about the specific factors presented by the "nature and severity" of his or her deafness relative to the content and method of delivery of the curriculum.  This reference pointed to the necessity of having educators who had expertise in deafness directly involved in the educational planning for students who were deaf or hard of hearing-a responsibility that was and is often left to professionals with no background in deafness or hearing loss.

A main thrust of the Deaf Students Policy Guidance was that meeting the unique communication and related needs of a deaf student was fundamental to that individual's free and appropriate public education.  It stated that:

 "Any setting, including a regular classroom, that prevents a child who is deaf from receiving an appropriate education that meets his or her needs, including communication needs, is not the LRE for that child.  Placement decisions must be based on the child's IEP.  Thus the consideration of LRE as a part of the placement decision must always be in the context of LRE in which appropriate services can be provided.  Any setting which does not meet the communication and related needs of a child who is deaf, and therefore, does not allow for the provision of FAPE, cannot be considered the LRE for that child.  The provision of FAPE is paramount, and the individual placement determination about LRE is to be considered within the context of FAPE."

The Guidance contended that some public agencies had "misapplied the LRE provision by presuming that placements in or closer to the regular classroom are required for children who are deaf" without considering the communication needs of the student.  That said, the Guidance also acknowledged that general education settings are appropriate and adaptable to meet the unique needs of particular deaf students, and that a continuum of placement options must be maintained, and that all placement decisions must be based on the IEP, with an emphasis on "individual" needs.

Incorporating New Policies:  The Policy Guidance of 1992 evolved from the Deaf Education Initiative Project, which was comprised of a taskforce of professionals from all arenas in deaf education, advocacy, and the deaf community.  Conceptualized by Dr. Robert Davila, former Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, the "Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students Educational Service Guidelines" were published in 1994 for the National Association of State Directors of Education, (NASDE).  Exhaustive, comprehensive, and communication-focused, this document became the definitive resource and reference on deaf education, from audiology to American Sign Language, to Deaf Cultural concepts to Cued Speech.  It was distributed nationally, and remains a powerful source of still-practical, meaningful information specific to this population.

From Policies to Mandates:  When IDEA was re-authorized in 1997, it included, for the first time, specific language that acknowledged the need for special considerations when the student was deaf or hard of hearing. The law said (and continues to say, current with the 2004 IDEA Reauthorization):

Sec. 614 (3) Development of IEP; (B) Consideration of Special Factors.   The IEP team shall.

(iv) Consider the communication needs of the child, and in the case of the child who is deaf or hard of hearing, consider the child's language and communication needs, opportunities for direct communications with peers and professional personnel in the child's language and communication mode, academic level, and full range of needs, including opportunities for direct instruction in the child's language and communication mode; and

(v) Consider whether the child requires assistive technology devices and services.

The Upshot

Having these considerations spelled out in IDEA is a major coup, but the impact of this language has yet to be fully realized for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.  The good news is that parents and professionals who know about "special considerations" can use this language to their advantage when advocating for deaf and hard of hearing students. 

If there's any bad news, it's that the consideration given to these factors, if any, is often subjective and incomplete.  There's something about the educational system that is uncomfortable with change or activities that fall outside known procedures.  Standardized IEP forms (used by most school districts) are not conducive to the inclusion of specific outcomes derived from a free-form discussion of special considerations for deaf kids.  IEP teams often don't know where to go with this information, especially if the services in their school district don't offer programs with direct instruction, deaf or hard of hearing peers, or anything else that could arise from a serious deliberation of "special considerations."

Remedies and Action Plans... Putting IDEA into Practice

So how do you harness the power of IDEA's special considerations for students who are deaf or hard of hearing?  How do you use it to create better IEPs?  For some state's, creating a mechanism to "house" the activities or decisions prompted by "special considerations" has been the answer. 

The "Deaf Child's Bill of Rights" (DCBR, or some variation on that theme) is legislation that numerous states have passed to ensure that "special considerations" for deaf and hard of hearing students actually get put into effective practice in schools.  Extracting the same language from IDEA, and modifying it according to the climate of a given state, many DCBR's have been passed at the state level requiring schools to develop action plans in response to IDEA, - right at the IEP level. 

In Colorado , for example, their DCBR (passed into law in 1996) actually adds some language to a foundation based on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students Educational Service Guidelines and IDEA, strengthening the considerations to include requirements for the "proficiency" of staff delivering any IEP services.  It also adds deaf and hard of hearing adult role models to the "opportunities for exposure to peers" consideration, and more.  All factors for consideration are to be addressed in the student's "Communication Plan."  The Communication Plan is a required document to be attached to each student's IEP.  The intention of the Communication Plan is to have conversations as an IEP team, and  to develop action plans wherever an area of need is identified relative to "special considerations" for deaf and hard of hearing students.


The Deaf Community: For many deaf individuals, their sense of identity is synonymous with their deafness and with the Deaf Community.   They view deafness not as a "disability" but as a cultural experience unified by a complete, unique language (American Sign Language) and the common values of their community. The Deaf Community considers itself a 'linguistic minority' group, with a rich cultural and artistic heritage, social structure, and shared history.   In this context, the word Deaf is always capitalized, signifying a sense of pride in a culture and community that rejects the view of deafness from a clinical or medical perspective. 

"The interests of the deaf child and his parents may best be served by accepting that he is a deaf person, with an elaborate cultural and linguistic heritage that can enrich his parent's life as it will his own."

- Harlan Lane, The Mask of Benevolence

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