You may have heard rumblings about some legislation popping up in various states around the US regarding language acquisition for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. What are these bills all about and how could they affect your family?
Though the exact wording and details of the bills vary from state to state, essentially they aim to set up a system of assessments (some say every three months, some say every six months, etc.) in ASL (American Sign Language) and English for all children with hearing loss
Those who are supporting these laws say that they want to put in place a system to make sure that all children with hearing loss are ready for kindergarten. Great idea… that system already exists. It’s called IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and it provides early intervention services to children birth through age three (IDEA Part C) and free and appropriate public education for children ages three through twenty-one (IDEA Part B). Children who have IFSPs and IEPs already receive regular assessments to monitor their progress and assess their growth.
IDEA also has several important advantages over the new laws being promoted:
IDEA is federally funded. The laws being proposed have no funding. That means that states receive money to pay for special education services provided under IDEA. If these new laws are passed, who will pay for the additional testing and services they require? If you’re a taxpayer, the answer is YOU.
IDEA has robust procedural safeguards. That’s just legalese to say that there’s a chain of command and checks and balances in place to make sure your rights are respected. Parents have the right to “fire” any member of their child’s IFSP/IEP team at any time. You can choose your providers and there are qualifications and requirements for the people who provide services to your family. If you have a complaint, or feel your family’s wishes are not being respected, you have rights and legal resources to help you, like requesting an independent educational evaluation or going to district-level mediation. These new laws have none of that. They propose that an unelected board of “experts” (chosen by whom? certainly not by YOU, the families!) will view your child’s test results and “make recommendations” to your family if they feel your child is deficient. You did not choose these people, as you would with your IEP team. You did not elect them as you would with your local school board. But your child will be their business, and they will have a say in decisions about your child’s education. Does that sound fair to you? At an IEP or IFSP meeting, you are an equal member of the team. You aren’t an equal member of this panel. You aren’t a member at all. How intimidating is that? I feel that this exploits the power differential between a panel of “experts” (with questionable credentials) on one side and the parents on the other. You might have the backbone to stand up to them, but the next set of parents might not, and I don’t want to leave that to chance.
What is motivating this legislation? As with most things in government, follow the money…
Where will the system of “assessments” and “recommendations” these laws set up be housed? I suspect, as has happened with past legislation that attempts to restrict parent choice, that the prime locations will be state schools for the deaf and/or state commissions for the deaf and hard of hearing. Take a look at the people proposing and supporting these bills in your state… many of them also work for the state schools for the deaf and commissions for the deaf and hard of hearing. Do you see the conflict of interest? You know who these people aren’t? Parents of children with hearing loss. As so often happens in education, it becomes more about jobs for adults than results for children.
Research the average per pupil funding in your state. Then take a look at the annual budget for the state school for the deaf. Now look into that school’s scores on your state’s yearly standardized assessments. See just how much more is spent per student, per year… and for what result? Defenders of these schools will say that they are saddled with “oral failures” who come to them with too little language, too late, but I have yet to see anyone produce peer-reviewed data to show that children who enroll in state schools for the deaf “late” a) are coming from certified OPTION schools or were being seen by Listening and Spoken Language Specialists or b) fare any differently than students who attend those schools K-12. It’s a great “pass the buck” excuse, but until data can be produced to support this claim, I’m not buying it.
What tests will be used?
The advocates behind the bills are pushing for regular assessment of ASL skills for children with hearing loss… but what assessments will they use? To date, there are ZERO psychometrically valid standardized assessments of language development in American Sign Language. Not. a. single. one.
Is this the magic bullet it promises to be?
Advocates of ASL say that having ALL deaf children use sign language will remedy the problems we see with poor language development and low academic achievement. But is this so? Is mandating (ahem “recommending”) that families learn a completely new language from scratch a way to improve that child’s language? We learn language from being surrounded by many fluent language models. Parents who are piecing together the basics of a brand new foreign language cannot provide this fluent model to help their child make up for delays. Again, show me the data to support this assumption.
Many of the people supporting this legislation are culturally Deaf and grew up with culturally Deaf parents. ASL was the language of their homes, and they understandably feel positively about their language and their culture. But they ignore the immense privilege they had of growing up in a signing home. If their parents could communicate with their children in their native language… why can’t you have that same right?
Is this really about ALL options?
The bills specify ASL and English. Sometimes they leave “English” intentionally vague — do they mean students need proficiency in written English only? Spoken English? They don’t say. But ASL and spoken English are not the only options for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. What about families who use Cued Speech or signed English systems, like SEE? Families know best what will work for them and their child. Why do these bill only “allow” two options?
Is this really for the benefit of ALL children with hearing loss?
Past legislative efforts, like passing laws to ensure that inflight movies are captioned on airplanes or web videos have closed captioning, have enjoyed a broad base of support from the whole spectrum of hearing loss organizations — AG Bell, the National Association of the Deaf, Hearing Loss Association of America, Hands and Voices, etc. These were things that benefitted ALL people with hearing loss without an agenda as to communication mode. These laws are being aggressively promoted by just one small group of people. What does that tell you about the “unbiased” nature of their legislation?
Hey! Where did my civil rights go?
Are you raising your children as vegetarians? Do they go to public or private school? Do you attend religious services regularly? Do you make them take their vitamins every morning? As parents, you make all of these decisions — and more! — for your children each day, in accordance with the values and culture of your home. Does the government have any right to appoint a panel of people to judge your other parenting decisions? What about having a child who happens to have one physical characteristic (hearing loss) means that you lose your right to make decisions for your child?
So say it LOUD and CLEAR: Families have the right to make the communication and technology decisions that are best for THEIR child and THEIR family. Period.
It’s time to raise your voice. If you are concerned about legislation that infringes upon family rights and the full spectrum of communication options for children who are deaf and hard of hearing, contact your legislators. Share your family’s story. Speak up for family choice and diversity!