Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Language and Communication

I am an itinerant TODHH. I am working to support a student who has bilateral CIs and just started using an Oral Communication Facilitator (OCF) within the last 12 months because oral language development had been a struggle. Currently, there is a struggle to find the balance of the role of the OCF with the student and multiple teachers that work with the student throughout the school day. Is there any type of document that explains the role of an OCF, and/or why a child with cochlear implants requires signing support to continue to help facilitate spoken language?

Question from J.J., Virginia. Posted December 14, 2017.
Response from Marsha Gunderson - Iowa Department of Education and Iowa School for the Deaf

First of all, I commend the IEP team for recognizing that this student had language development delays and created a plan to remedy that delay. As we all know, plans often need adjusting as the student develops, teachers change, transition to a different building, and a host of other items arise. Multiple teachers throughout the school day can create communication challenges due to content, teaching styles, classroom settings, etc.

Oral Communication Facilitator, Language Facilitator, Communication Facilitator are all names for paraprofessionals who work with students by assisting, facilitating and guiding language and communication in the educational setting. It is the IEP team, which includes the student when appropriate, who should outline the specific roles and responsibilities of this one-on-one paraprofessional. There is no national standard on the roles and responsibilities of this paraprofessional. However, a quick search found some job descriptions.

The primary goals of this role seem to be 1) assisting communication in the classroom by expanding, coaching and prompting and 2) working to foster increased student independence.
One resource is Students with Cochlear Implants: Guidelines for Educational Program Planning, jointly developed by Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program of Boston Children’s Hospital. The documents are free and located at http://www3.gallaudet.edu/clerc-center/our-resources/publications/students-with-cochlear-implants.html.

Another resource is the Instructional Communication Access Checklist, one of the documents in the Placement and Readiness Checklists (PARC) at https://www.handsandvoices.org/pdf/PARC_2011_ReadinessChecklists.pdf. This is a tool the IEP team can use to gauge how a student accesses instruction using listening and spoken language, sign language, cues, or both sign and cues and how proficient the student is using that approach. One benefit of the tool is that it can emphasize skills that the student may need to have successful learning experiences in school.

Thank you for advocating for the communication and language needs of this student.

My almost 12-year-old son was born profoundly deaf and has gotten great use from his bilateral cochlear implants since he was a toddler and is completely oral. For various reasons (hearing impairment, possible mild autism) he had challenges with his language development, frustration, etc., so his exposure to academics has been minimal. We taught him to read at home and he has demonstrated the ability to learn math, language arts, etc., He gets a tiny amount of instruction for academics each week but is now absolutely ready to tackle higher level work. We are at a loss as to how to bridge the gap between his current educational level of 2nd grade or so to allow him to be more integrated into his grade level classes. We want the school district to teach a modified curriculum to him and to provide intensive remediation, especially regarding vocabulary development, etc. Our district and the co-op that provides minimal hearing itinerant support do not seemed inclined to tackle this and may not know how to do it. My son is begging to be taught and we have to figure this out. Do you have any suggestions?

Question from E.C., Illinois. Posted October 24, 2017.

In general, academics depend on a student’s linguistic and information foundational base. For example, kids who have language skills around the 7 year level will likely be able to handle academics at around a 2nd grade. Having a good language/communication skills evaluation and a good cognitive assessment can often inform the educational team (including parents) about levels of instruction that would be appropriate to challenge – yet not overwhelm – learners. If that has not yet happened, you should request it of the school/district. With regard to your son being “completely oral,” chances are that consultation from a special educator(s) experienced with students on the spectrum may have valuable suggestions for an aural/oral learner. The “hearing itinerant” teacher can be expected to have experience and skill in working with a learner who accesses language and the curriculum with cochlear implants, but may not be that experienced in working with learners who have challenges like those of ASD. Does his school team have expertise from specialists in autism? If not, check with local itinerant teachers and/or school psychologists to find someone who does and be sure to ask for appropriate services to be put into his IEP.

Some DHH students who manifest features of autism learn best through visual means – charts, schedules, diagrams, dioramas, pictures, graphs, illustrations – and through print (written words and phrases and lists). Again, an experience itinerant teacher and/or school psychologist (experienced in working with deaf children) should be able to provide guidance.

I have a 15 year-old who has unilateral hearing loss and finally has an interpreter in her classes. I’d like to address ASL communication/language goals in her IEP. What test or tests do you recommend to identify the skill level for high school students? Her goal is to be fluent in ASL. Her college goals include attending RIT or Gallaudet. Because we are in a rural area and have limited access to qualified educators, I am figuring out a lot of these things on my own, including getting my daughter ASL instruction and figuring out the way to get her an interpreter in the classroom. My next question, is where can I get ideas on secondary language goals?

Question from A.L., Midwest, USA. Posted October 24, 2017.

Gallaudet University has just came out with an ASL Assessment. You can find more information about that from the Gallaudet VL2 website. Without knowing the rationale for fluency in ASL, it is difficult to answer your question fully. Is this because she is not able to communicate effectively with spoken language or is the goal to become bilingual? Depending on the goal, the school’s responsibility to provide supports for ASL would be very different. Typically, it would not be the school’s responsibility to provide SPED supports to ensure fluency in a second language if she is progressing academically/socially using spoken language. If she has a progressive loss or cannot access instruction through spoken language, then they would have a greater amount of responsibility in providing SPED services for ASL development.

We are a small state with a generic inclusion policy for all students with a disability, which means that deaf students must attend their local school and are supported by itinerant ToD and/or interpreters. Our numbers are small and decentralised so most deaf children attend schools where they are the only deaf child. I would like to influence the Education Department policy to allow deaf children the choice of enrolling ‘out of area’ to be educated in a setting with other deaf and hard-of-hearing students, but I need some research evidence to present to the Department before they will consider this. Can anyone please help with some research supporting the need for deaf children to have access to deaf peers and role models for their linguistic, social and emotional development?

Question from M.R., Australia. Posted August 3, 2017.

As much so we talk about the importance of “supporting the need for deaf children to have access to deaf peers and role models for their linguistic, social and emotional development,” the evidence is remarkably thin. What current evidence (as opposed to testimonials) there is comes primarily from co-enrollment programs, programs that include a critical mass of deaf students in inclusive classrooms that include both a general education teacher and a teacher of the deaf. You can find a description of co-enrollment and access couple of relevant articles through the Raising and Educating Deaf Children website. Two book chapters listed below specifically emphasize the benefits of being with a critical mass of deaf peers for linguistic and social-emotional development, respectively. At this point, however, we do not yet have much evidence to indicate strong effects of co-enrollment on academic achievement. More research is definitely needed.

Further reading:

Tang, G., Lam, S. & Yiu, K.-M. (2014). Language development of severe to profoundly deaf children studying in a sign bilingual and co-enrollment environment. In M. Marschark, G. Tang, & H. Knoors (Eds.), Bilingualism and bilingual deaf education (pp. 313–341). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Yiu, K.-M. & Tang, G. (2014). Social integration of deaf and hard-of-hearing children in a sign bilingual and co-enrollment environment. In M. Marschark, G. Tang, & H. Knoors (Eds.), Bilingualism and bilingual deaf education (pp. 342–367). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

I want my daughter to go to a school with a full program for students with hearing loss. My child’s school is recommending a closer program to home that only offers ASL. My daughter had to repeat 9th grade because I believe she didn’t have the necessary accommodations. Is a school that offers ASL adequate? The other school has a team of audiologists, speech pathologists, career coaches for students with hearing loss.

Question from I.L., California. Posted July 25, 2017.

There are two aspects to your question. First, with regard to language, you do not say whether your daughter has spoken language skills or relies exclusively on sign language. If she has spoken language skills, you want a program that supports those skills (with audiologists, speech pathologists, technology, etc.) as well as any sign language skills she might have. In that case, a school that offers only ASL is not adequate. Second, any deaf or hard-of-hearing student, regardless of their preferred/stronger language modality, will benefit from career coaches and other support/advising services. Both these services and the language-related services you want for your daughter can be built into her Individualized Education Program (IEP). Recent research shows that ending interventions and support services available in elementary school can create real challenges for deaf or hard-of-hearing students if they are ended too early. Many if not most such students will need and benefit from continued support into the high school years. More services are always better then fewer services!

How effective will it be for a child using Melanesian Sign Language in mainstream schools?

Question from W.D., Papua New Guinea. Posted March 3, 2017.

As long as the school provides qualified sign language services or the teachers sign (fluently) for themselves, sign language is just as appropriate as spoken language for educational purposes. There still will be the important issue of effective communication with classmates, but hopefully an interpreter can facilitate that. But, even if sign language and spoken language are both appropriate in the classroom, they are not equivalent. Children who use sign language or spoken language have somewhat different strengths and needs, so it is important for parents and teachers to make sure that each child is getting services that match. Teachers may not have been trained in those differences, and some are subtle, so reading current textbooks or other materials will be helpful. Also, even if children are using sign language, hearing aids can be very helpful for those who have some amount of residual hearing. Finally, I should emphasize the words “qualified” and “fluently” in the first sentence. This may not be possible in all places, but for children who do not use spoken language effectively, fluent language models are essential if they are to have the same opportunities and academic outcomes as hearing children.

I currently live in a state that does not have a listening and spoken language program for deaf children with cochlear implants. A bordering state has such a program. My county’s district will not allow my child to go there. Is there a law that they are in violation of? Do I have the right to have my child attend this LSL school?

Question from C.L., Indiana. Posted February 2, 2017.

It is difficult to give a definitive answer without having more information. However, the guiding principle for placement decisions is the IEP. So, if your child has an IEP that calls for the delivery of services that only an LSL School can provide, and the district does not have appropriate services that meet the needs as stated in the IEP, then the district would be required to find a placement that could provide those services.

As far as “rights” go, there is the right to compliance with the regulations on the part of the district. For example, if an evaluation is requested, the district is required to provide one in a timely fashion in order to be available for review at an IEP team meeting. If you feel that the evaluation and/or IEP recommendations are inappropriate, you have the right to reject the IEP. That is, the IEP process should determine the placement based on assessment data. You and your child have the right to that, but not to an alternative placement unless it can be demonstrated that what was being offered by the district does not meet the goals of the IEP. Parental wishes are considered but not binding.

p.s. The same standard would apply through any appeals process.

What is the best way to teach a child who is deaf to attend to sign?

Question from J.B., Florida. Posted October 11, 2016.

There are a number of strategies that deaf parents and teachers use to ensure that deaf children attend to (signed) communication and maintain that attention. You can find a description of some of these strategies in a recent posting on the Raising and Educating Deaf Children website.

I have a son who is deaf…or so we thought. We had an ABR done recently, and he has no permanent hearing loss. Great news! I still feel that he has hearing issues. Small ear canals, frequent ear infections, but no permanent hearing losses. He also has oromotor issues that are congenital. He can’t drink, can’t eat more than purees, drools, right sided weakness, low tone, etc. He’s had 4 oral surgeries. It makes sense that he can’t talk. He did say his first word this summer, “Go!” So, I want him to learn ASL. He started at 30 signs 6 months ago, and now he has a vocabulary in excess of 250 signs.

We had an IEP meeting last week. brought 3 doctor reports and a speech therapist report that all indicate that he needs to be taught sign language in his classroom. The school “accepts” but will not teach ASL. They want him to use an iPad with pictures. I feel that all of his gains in speech are linked to his sign language acquisition.

I did reach out to the school for the deaf. We are signed up to do some of their outreach programs. He’s not deaf, so they won’t/can’t help us. I want my son in a Total Communication class. There is one about 20 minutes from our house.

How can we get what (we feel) our son needs?

Question from M.G., New York. Posted September 7, 2016.

If a finding of special needs is found (which clearly is the case) then the child is eligible for special education. At that point, it does not matter how the school “feels” about the recommendations, the school has to provide services based upon the assessments to provide access to the curriculum. Rejecting sign language because he is hearing is not an appropriate determination if the assessments indicate that as an adoption that will facilitate access to instruction and social interaction. This is a child with multiple needs and the recommendations that were cited do not come close to the extensive level of support the child will need to be able to be successful. Pull out services will not suffice at least not during his early childhood years and the need to intervene comprehensively to promote development is necessary.

So, first, the school should assess the child’s language level, both receptively and expressively. This is the starting point. Then goals should be developed based on the needs identified during the assessment. The overall goal should be achievement of age-level language skills. Age level skills will enable him to access the general education curriculum. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act emphasizes age appropriate skills and access to the same educational material that other children receive, that is the general education curriculum. In other words, the school should be attempting to get the child’s skills to the same level of his peers so that he can participate in the classroom similar to his peers, to the extent possible. Will using an iPad with pictures do that? It’s hard to see how. The fact that you can show that he is succeeding using sign language is helpful.

Once goals are developed, then the services should be determined, such as teaching sign language by a trained teacher. After the services are agreed upon, then placement is made. The placement must be based on the child’s needs and services. If there is a total communication class that would fit the method used in the class, that would seem to be a more appropriate choice. If there is any capacity for spoken language, a simultaneous communication approach may be better in the long run.

Sounds simple, but I know when you are advocating for your child it is not easy. In the end, litigation may be the only way forward, with the experts lined up prepared to make recommendations based on their findings and to have the school system respond on how they will fulfill the requirements. Hopefully, it will not come to that. Meanwhile, a few tools you can use:

First, if you believe that the school has not done an appropriate assessment of his language skills you should request they do (or re-do) that right away. Also, are his goals consistent with getting him to the level of his peers (and helping him continue to progress)? They should be.

Second, as for placement, when a school refuses to change the placement of a child (or for other purposes), it must inform the parents of the reasons. This is called “Prior Written Notice.” See the form developed by the U.S. Department of Education at http://idea.ed.gov/download/modelform2_Prior_Written_Notice.pdf. As you can see, the school must explain the reasons why it refuses the placement, based on evaluation procedures, assessments, and records. You can request that the school provide the information required on this form.

Another law that applies in this case is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Among other things, that law requires schools to ensure that students with speech disabilities can receive information from, and convey information to, others. This communication must be as effective as communication with students without disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance on the ADA and effective communication at https://www.ada.gov/doe_doj_eff_comm/doe_doj_eff_comm_faqs.htm. Under the ADA schools must give “primary consideration” to the request of the student or parent.

My son was implanted at 2 years of age with a CI. He is now 3 years old. He was diagnosed with Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder and he is severely to profoundly deaf. They describe his disorder like a static radio most of the time it’s static but every once in a while he hears something but not enough to form speech or understand what a sound is. The CI was not a guarantee that it would work, but as my husband and I are both hearing and no one else in the family with hearing loss we figured we should give it a try. We have also been signing with him since he was 15 months old. Our son is now in school, and at his last IEP meeting we were told that they probably don’t have the funds for an interpreter or enough children to start a deaf class. I don’t know how to get my son the education he needs! I just don’t think it’s fair. He is very smart, very visual, and has an amazing memory. What can I do and how can I fight for my son’s education??

Question from C.D., Florida. Posted July 26, 2016.

You indicate that your son has auditory neuropathy and received a cochlear implant at age two. Some children with auditory neuropathy will benefit from cochlear implants, but most will need sign language for the very reason you described—auditory neuropathy produces static rather than a clear auditory signal, making it very difficult or impossible to access spoken language auditorily, even with a CI. It sounds like you have been doing everything right for your son by providing sign language since he was 15 months old.

I was sorry to hear that the school’s IEP team decided not to provide sign language for your son. Your son is entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—the federal law which governs every public school district in the U.S. For deaf students, the IDEA specifically states that communication needs, including the need for sign language, must be considered by the IEP team when making educational placement and services decisions. Furthermore, an IEP team may not use “lack of funds” as a reason not to provide interpreting or any other special services required for him to obtain FAPE.

The IDEA grants parents of children with documented special needs, including deafness, the right to appeal an IEP team decision. Every IEP team must, by law, provide parents with written procedures for appealing an IEP team decision. You should request the written procedures from your school district immediately and file an appeal according to the procedures described in that document.

In my experience, school districts often do not understand the communication needs of deaf children. However, you can and should advocate for your son through well-established legal procedures. In so doing, you will also be educating the school district – paving the way for future families with deafness—as well as for your son. I encourage you to be confident and persistent, because your son has the right to a free appropriate educational program, which in his case should include sign language.