In early February, the United States Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.
During Mrs. DeVos’ hearing, advocates for the Deaf and hard of hearing witnessed the nominee reply to a question from Senator Tim Kaine (D, VA) about the IDEA (Individual with Disabilities Education Act, the Federal law that upon its passage in 1986 marked a watershed moment for the education of the Deaf and hard of hearing in the United States), with an answer that suggested that she was unaware that IDEA was binding in all states.
In many ways, Mrs. DeVos’ reply to Senator Kaine represents a challenge to decades of progress made in improving educational outcomes for Deaf and hard of hearing students. In the face of this challenge it is important now, more than ever, to understand the impact that IDEA had on the education of Deaf and hard of hearing children across America – and the progress that we must still make to ensure that Deaf and hard of hearing children receive the education that they deserve.
Originally dubbed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, IDEA introduced IEPs, or Individualized Education Plans, to schools alongside the concepts of the LRE (least restrictive environment) and FAPE (free appropriate public education). These laws were meant to provide children with the opportunity to obtain an education equal to their peers, and particularly for Deaf and hard of hearing children it meant the beginning of slow development of local public school capacity to meet their communication needs.
In 1997, in part due to a setback in 1982, Board of Education v. Rowley, in which the Supreme Court ruled essentially that under IDEA school districts need only provide students with an “adequate” education, and that “equal” educational opportunities – such as could be achieved by providing students with a sign language interpreter — would be “entirely unworkable”, IDEA was reauthorized and strengthened. Among the improvements to IDEA were requirements to take greater heed of students’ language and communication needs and to provide opportunities for direct instruction in students’ language and communication mode.
Over the years, building upon IDEA has gone slowly. Regulations implementing IDEA in 1999 explicitly listed, at long last, sign language as a native language for the Deaf and hard of hearing. On March 22nd, 2017, in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that its decision in Board of Education v. Rowley should not be construed as allowing schools to provide “merely more than de minimis” educational benefits and that IEPs are to be “appropriately ambitious… every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” But reaction has been mixed, with some advocates arguing that the vague language in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion did not go far enough to raise the bar in terms of what is expected of schools.
Notwithstanding the progress that has been made possible by IDEA, much more work remains in other areas equally important to the educational development of Deaf and hard of hearing children.
Residential schools for the Deaf, bastions of American Sign Language and Deaf culture, are under assault, with their financing remaining stagnant and in some cases being cut. Since 2011, five schools for the Deaf have closed, depriving Deaf students in those areas of educational choice. To strengthen educational options for the Deaf, CEASD, the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf, has worked with Congress to introduce the Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act, which would, if passed, require states to improve the educational programs and services they provide to Deaf children, and would financially penalize states who close schools for the Deaf. Click here to learn more about the Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act, and how to petition your Member of Congress to co-sponsor this important bill.
Another area with broad room for improvement: ensuring young children are exposed to language at as early an age as possible. This has been a persistent challenge; for a long time for newborns, failure to detect hearing loss in a timely manner was rampant, leading, for many, to delayed language acquisition and subsequent language-based learning disabilities.
The passage of EHDI, the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Act, in 2000, led to the establishment of EHDI programs in states, enabling earlier hearing loss detection and opportunities to obtain intervention services. The rate of newborns screened shot up from 44% when EHDI was passed by Congress, to 98% in recent years.
But more than 90 percent of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, and specialists that these parents interact with following EHDI testing do not always offer a full range of data and choices with which to determine the optimal language acquisition path for their children. American Sign Language (ASL), specifically, despite being supported by a body of research demonstrating its educational and social benefits, is not always offered as an option to parents. Consequently, language deprivation and subsequent language-based learning disabilities remain a significant problem despite the improved early detection rate of hearing loss.
To ensure that Deaf children are not deprived of language development, LEAD-K, Language Equality & Acquisition for Deaf Kids, is leading a nationwide effort to pass legislation at the state level that would require language development testing for Deaf children from ages 0 to 5, the critical language acquisition period in a child’s life. Crucially, the legislation LEAD-K supports would ensure that information regarding ASL be offered to parents of Deaf children to empower them with a full range of choices with which to lead their children to maximize their language acquisition. To support LEAD-K and find out how you can advocate for legislation in your state, click here.
We have much more work ahead of us to maximize the potential of all Deaf and hard of hearing children. We welcome your support in this effort. Click here to receive updates on educational issues and to continue to learn how you can be a part of this effort.
David Bahar is Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs for Communication Service for the Deaf and a board member of the Lexington School & Center for the Deaf in New York City.