State Laws for Students who are Deaf
In recent years, states have steadily passed legislation designed to focus on the unique communication and educational needs of students who are deaf and hard of hearing. The ideas that form the cornerstone of these laws are now making their way to the federal level as part of a national public policy advocacy campaign as well as proposed federal legislation. Parents of children who are deaf and hard of hearing should be aware of these initiatives—and understand what they mean for students who are pursuing a listening and spoken language outcome.
Laws for Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights (DCBR) have been sweeping the nation and one may be in the works in your state. At least 14 states already passed a DCBR and several states—Florida, Massachusetts and Virginia—have had recent legislative activity, while other states have considered, but not passed, this legislation at some point in time.
The DCBR is a state law that is designed to foster recognition at the state level of the educational, communication and language needs that are unique to students who are deaf and hard of hearing as well as educational options for these students. These laws are intended to foster dialogue between parents and school districts—and ensure that this discussion occurs—during the process of developing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or determining accommodations to support students with hearing loss in the classroom.
While DCBR laws may be well-intentioned in their focus on the needs of students who are deaf and hard of hearing, these laws frequently have language that focuses on access and rights to sign language which is not relevant to the majority of students who are deaf and hard of hearing in the public schools. National data show that 52% of students who are deaf and hard of hearing nationwide are educated in environments which focus on listening and spoken language (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2008).
Despite the changing demographics of the population of students who are deaf and hard of hearing, many state DCBR laws call for qualified and certified personnel who can communicate directly with children using their mode of communication. DCBR laws also support access to a sufficient number of same-language mode peers who are of the same age and ability level so that a “critical mass” of peers is available with whom children who are deaf and hard of hearing can communicate directly in the same language.
These state laws have been passed despite overarching federal legislation, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which provides access to a free and appropriate public education for all students with disabilities, including those who are deaf and hard of hearing, from birth to the postsecondary level. The language in some state laws runs counter to federal laws which have long promoted access for people with disabilities to the educational mainstream by providing specialized services, instruction and accommodations. Some DCBR laws, for example, suggest that the determination of the least restrictive environment for a child take into consideration the unique communication needs of children who are deaf and hard of hearing.
National Advocacy Efforts
Many of the ideas and principles in statewide DCBR laws are now included in a national public awareness and legislative campaign called “Child First,” which was launched last fall by the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD). The campaign has similar objectives as DCBR laws—to address the language, communication and educational needs of children who are deaf and hard of hearing.
A focal point of the campaign is the proposed “Alice Cogswell Act of 2013,” which is named after a student who led to the founding of one of the first schools for the deaf in the United States in the early 1800s. This stand-alone bill is intended to advance discussion among congressional representatives, disability organizations, and other stakeholders prior to the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Key aspects of the proposed legislation include:
- Consideration of special factors—the proposed bill discusses specific kinds of learning that may be needed by students who are deaf and hard of hearing.
- Natural environment—IDEA currently places emphasis on the home as the natural environment; however, this act proposes that for a child who is deaf or hard of hearing, a natural environment can be a specialized setting with other children who are deaf and hard of hearing.
- Evaluations—the act calls for evaluations of language and communication proficiencies in their primary language or mode of communication.
- State plans—all states must have a plan in place for the implementation of IDEA; however, the act proposes that the state plan have a section that specifically addresses the needs of students who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Reauthorization of IDEA is likely to be years away, but advocates are working now to begin discussion around the proposed Alice Cogswell Act of 2013 to build broad-based support among disability organizations and in Congress. At press time, there were no congressional champions for the proposed legislation, which is being discussed by coalitions representing professional and consumer organizations related to hearing loss.
In the years leading up to the reauthorization, the time is now to begin a national dialogue about the future of the education of children who are deaf and hard of hearing and the opportunities for children to pursue a listening and spoken language outcome in the mainstream so that they can achieve language, literacy and communication skills commensurate with their peers.
AG Bell Recommendations for Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights
Many issues included in the language of various statewide Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights (DCBR) laws already are addressed by existing federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). AG Bell supports the educational needs of all children who are deaf and hard of hearing and advocates for the development of state legislation that specifically supports the needs of children who are deaf and hard of hearing and who are pursuing a listening and spoken language outcome. AG Bell recommends that state legislation should:
- Support the right and responsibility of parents to make informed educational and medical decisions for their child in consultation with professionals.
- Provide the right for families to be made aware of all communication options and hearing technology in an unbiased manner.
- Entitle children who are deaf and hard of hearing to the same opportunity to develop grade- and age-appropriate listening, language, literacy and academic achievement commensurate with their peers.
- Support access to quality, ongoing early intervention services that are critical to listening and spoken language development.
- Recognize the Listening and Spoken Language Specialist (LSLS®) certification as the standard for providers with the highest level of qualifications who serve children pursuing a listening and spoken language outcome.
- Offer children who are deaf and hard of hearing equal opportunities to benefit in educational services and programs as well as the extra-curricular activities that all students enjoy.
Source: Volta Voices, July/August 2013