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Federal Panel Urges Major Overhaul In Programs for the Deaf

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WASHINGTON--A federal commission last week called for major changes in the way that most of the nation's estimated 1.2 million hearing-impaired children are educated.

"The current state of the art in deaf education at all levels is unsatisfactory,'' said Frank G. Bowe, chairman of the Commission on Education of the Deaf, in issuing the commission's hard-hitting report.

"We still have deaf high-school graduates who are reading at or below a 3rd-grade level,'' he said, and "the roots of the problem are in the preschool, elementary, and secondary years.''

The commission took exception to current moves to integrate more deaf children into regular classrooms, saying that not all hearing-impaired children can benefit from such integration.

It also laid part of the blame for the poor quality of deaf pupils' education on the Congress, which it charged with failure to adequately monitor and direct the "well-meaning'' programs it has created.

Established in 1986 by an act of the Congress, the 12-member commission has been examining the status of education for deaf and hearing-impaired adults and children for 18 months. Its final report, "Toward Equality: Education of the Deaf,'' was released during a March 21 public hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped.

The panel's report came two weeks after a widely publicized boycott of classes by students at Gallaudet University, the nation's only liberal-arts college for the deaf.

The campus of the federally funded university erupted in protest this month, after a woman with normal hearing was appointed president of the school. The resulting turmoil shut down the university for days and forced the resignation of its new president.

In her place, university trustees appointed I. King Jordan, a dean at the university, as the first hearing-impaired president in its 124-year history.

The protests drew wide public attention for the first time to the educational needs of deaf Americans. Gallaudet students and others said the attention would give rise to a new round of civil-rights activism by those suffering from hearing impairments and other disabilities.

Experts testifying at the Senate hearing last week predicted that the focus on Gallaudet would also provide an added impetus for the work of the commission, whose 52 recommendations range from a call for better screening for deafness at birth to mandatory captioning of network television programs.

"Because of the efforts at Gallaudet and because the report comes out at this time,'' said Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the subcommittee, "I think we really have a chance to move forward.''

The spirit of the Gallaudet protest was in evidence at the subcommittee hearing, where deaf audience members--some of them students at the nearby school--jeered the remarks of Madeleine C. Will, the Education Department's assistant secretary in charge of special education and rehabilitative services.

'Least Restrictive' Issue

Ms. Will, who oversees public-education programs for deaf children, was heckled after she spoke in opposition to one of the commission's most controversial recommendations: a call for greater emphasis on how best to educate deaf children rather than on where to teach them.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, PL 94-142, requires schools to educate handicapped children "to the maximum extent appropriate'' in the "least restrictive'' educational environment.

In its report, the commission contends that educators in general--and the Education Department in particular--have misinterpreted the term "least restrictive environment'' to mean the regular classroom in a child's neighborhood school.

The report states that "the prevailing interpretation of least restrictive environment continues to be based primarily on mainstreaming--although the term is never used in the law--and on the integration of deaf children, regardless of the nature or severity of their handicap, into regular classrooms with nonhandicapped children.''

But for deaf children--95 percent of whom enter school with little or no exposure to the English language--the regular classroom is not always the most "appropriate'' placement, according to the commission. Regular-classroom teachers often have no experience in dealing with the deaf, they point out in the report, and deaf children, unable to communicate with classmates or teachers, often feel isolated.

To remedy the situation, the report recommends that the Education Department "refocus the least restrictive environment concept'' by emphasizing first the appropriateness of a deaf child's educational placement.

It also recommends that educators take multiple factors into consideration when preparing an individualized education plan--an IEP, in special-education terminology--for deaf or hearing-impaired children.

The factors include: children's communicative needs and preferred mode of communication; their linguistic, cultural, social, and emotional needs; the severity of their hearing loss and the potential for using residual hearing; their academic level and style of learning; their placement preference; and the extent of family support.

Suggestions for Change

Among its other recommendations, the commission argued that:

  • American Sign Language should be recognized as the native language of deaf children and federal education officials should encourage schools to include such children in their bilingual-education programs;
  • A federal "quality in deaf education'' bill should be passed to provide incentives for states to improve educational services for the deaf;
  • In higher education, the Congress should strengthen and expand the four regional postsecondary-education programs funded by the federal government;
  • Ten comprehensive service centers should be established around the nation to provide vocational training, job placement, and other services for the estimated 60 percent of deaf teen-agers who cannot qualify for a college education.
  • Educators should inform the parents of deaf students about all of the educational placements available to their children and the possible disadvantages of some of those placements; and,
  • The Congress and the department should ensure that helping deaf students acquire language skills--including proficiency in vocal, visual, and written communication--takes priority in the implementation of exemplary instructional practices, the establishment of model programs, the funding of research, and other areas.

"A hearing child hears a word five times before internalizing it,'' noted Gertrude Galloway, a commission member, "but a deaf child must see a word 35 times in order to learn it.''

Testifying in response to the commission's recommendations, Ms. Will said it would be "incorrect'' for federal education officials to stress the "appropriateness'' of a deaf child's placement over the goal of "least restrictive environment.''

Defending the Status Quo

"The department ... encourages a balanced approach which emphasizes appropriateness in the least restrictive environment,'' she said.

"Our belief is that good-quality, appropriate education can be provided in the least restrictive environment,'' she said. "The commission implies that that is not the case.''

Approximately 75 percent of the nation's estimated 1.2 million hearing-impaired people below the age of 18, Ms. Will said, are being taught in "integrated'' settings.

But commission members said the quality of the education those students are receiving is often poor. Moreover, they added, the "integrated settings'' referred to by Ms. Will cover a wide range of placements--including separate facilities within public schools.

"Only about 50 percent of deaf students who are placed in local school settings experience any degree of academic integration,'' the report states.

At a press conference following the hearing, Gerald Covell, one of the students who led the protest at Gallaudet, said he was "disheartened'' by the assistant secretary's response to the commission's work. He said he wondered, also, whether the Congress would adopt many of the commission's findings.

"Maybe what we need,'' concluded Ms. Galloway of the commission, "is another Gallaudet University protest.''

Copies of the commission's 144-page report are to be made available by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. The price of the document has not yet been determined.

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