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Shortcomings in Schooling for Deaf Students Lamented

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WASHINGTON--Little has changed for hearing-impaired schoolchildren in the four years since a federal commission concluded that the education of deaf students was "unacceptably unsatisfactory,'' witnesses last week told a House panel beginning work on extension of federal deaf-education programs.

"Most deaf children now going through the public schools will never be a college graduate,'' said Frank G. Bowe, who served as the chairman of the Commission on Education of the Deaf. "We have tremendous investment in higher education for these kids but no investment whatsoever in the kids who haven't made it there.''

The testimony came at the first of three scheduled hearings before the House Subcommittee on Select Education on reauthorization of the Education of the Deaf Act. The 1986 law established the Commission on Education of the Deaf, whose work ended with its 1988 report, "Toward Equality: Education of the Deaf.''

The statute also authorizes funding for Gallaudet University, the nation's only liberal-arts university for the deaf, and its two precollegiate demonstration schools, as well as for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Those programs now receive $116 million under the act.

At about the time the commission issued its report, Gallaudet students staged a successful protest calling for the appointment of a deaf university president. Spurred in part by the fervor of those demonstrations, the Congress passed laws to bar discrimination against the disabled and to require that all new television sets be equipped with closed-caption decoders.

Problems in the Classroom

While those measures are expected to improve the qualify of life for most deaf and hard-of-hearing people, advocates said that much remains to be done to improve elementary and secondary schooling for deaf children.

The average deaf high-school graduate, they noted, still reads at a 3rd- or 4th-grade level, while their non-impaired peers typically read at the 10th-grade level.

Advocates said some blame for that problem should be placed on provisions in federal special-education law that require schools to provide disabled students "a free appropriate education'' in the "least restrictive environment.'' Schools often take that standard to mean the regular classroom, even when other instructional settings might be more appropriate for some children, the advocates contended.

Witnesses at the hearing also said deaf and hearing-impaired children sometimes founder in the regular classroom because they have poor English-language skills, because teachers are often unskilled in working with deaf students, or because interpreters are often unavailable or poorly trained.

Morever, they testified, deaf students often feel isolated in those classrooms. Studies show that while 70 percent to 80 percent of all deaf or hard-of-hearing students are in regular classrooms, only 10 percent to 15 percent of deaf pupils attend schools where there is more than one hearing-impaired student.

"Children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing have a right to meet and associate with their peers,'' said Roslyn Rosen, president of the National Association of the Deaf.

The national trend toward mainstreaming has also prompted five states--Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wyoming--to consider closing their state schools for the deaf, witnesses noted.

'Appropriate' Placement Sought

In its 1988 report, the federal commission recommended solving some of the problems posed by mainstreaming of deaf students by changing the federal standard to focus more on an "appropriate'' education and less on a "least restrictive environment.''

The panel urged schools to consider multiple factors in deciding how to educate a deaf child, including the child's preferred communication mode; his or her linguistic, social, cultural, and emotional needs; the level of residual hearing the child has; the child's placement preference; and the level of family support.

Although the Education Department has sometimes advised school districts individually to use those guidelines in making placement decisions, it has not adopted that recommendation wholesale.

Legislation to reauthorize the act has not yet been drafted. But changes in the standard of placement are expected to be an important consideration during Congressional work on the measure.

The House subcommittee's proposal will probably present more than a "fine tuning'' of the current law, noted Patricia Laird, a legislative analyst for the subcommittee.

"We've heard from people today who say we've got to make some major changes in secondary and elementary education for deaf students,'' she said.

The subcommittee's second hearing is scheduled for March 10.

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