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E.D. Revises Policy Favoring Regular Classes for the Deaf

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WASHINGTON--An Education Department official has announced plans to revise a longstanding federal policy favoring educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students in regular classrooms.

Educators have placed too much emphasis on where to educate deaf students and too little on how best to do the job, Robert R. Davila, the department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said in a speech during the annual meeting of the National Association of the Deaf.

He said the most important factor in deciding how to educate a deaf child should be the "appropriateness'' of the program for that child--wherever that program may be.

"From this day forward,'' he said, "the U.S. Department of Education takes a giant step toward fulfilling our obligations to students who are deaf, with a policy approach emphasizing that which is paramount in [federal law], the provision of an appropriate education.''

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools are required to provide children with an "appropriate education'' in the "least restrictive environment.'' Guided in part by the federal government, schools have tended in recent years to emphasize the latter in deciding how to teach deaf students. Educators have interpreted the term "least restrictive environment'' in most cases to mean the regular classroom.

As a result, Mr. Davila and advocates for deaf students have said, many deaf children are inappropriately placed in regular classrooms. They argue that while some students thrive in such settings, others, given no means of communicating with their classmates or teachers, flounder.

Prior Policy Seen as Misguided

Deaf students, their parents, and groups such as the National Association for the Deaf have long urged federal officials to reverse the emphasis on regular-classroom placement.

The Commission on the Education of the Deaf, a national panel, echoed that view in a 1988 report.

Those efforts met with opposition from Mr. Davila's predecessor, Madeleine C. Will, who said special educators should focus on "appropriateness in the least restrictive environment.''

Mr. Davila, who has been profoundly deaf since childhood, said the previous federal policy may have been misguided.

"I strongly believe that the framers of the original P.L. 94-142 [the Education for All Handicapped Children Act] never intended for [least restrictive environment] to overshadow the law's stated purpose--an appropriate education based on the child's unique need--for even one child,'' he told the association for the deaf at its meeting in Denver in June.

Guidelines Planned

Mr. Davila said his office plans to issue guidelines on the shift in policy. In keeping with the 1988 commission recommendations, he said, the guidelines will urge special educators to take a number of factors into account when planning a deaf child's education program.

They include: severity of hearing loss and the potential for using residual hearing; academic level and learning style; communication needs and the preferred mode of communication; placement preference; individual motivation; and family support.

Mr. Davila said the department will change its procedures for monitoring state special-education programs to reflect the new emphasis.

Panel Clears Education Bill

In another development in the field of deaf education this summer, the House Education and Labor Committee voted unanimously to reauthorize the Amendments to the Education of the Deaf Act of 1986.

The bill, HR 5483, is now pending on the House floor. It would provide "such sums as necessary'' for the continued operation of Gallaudet University and the National Technical Insitute for the Deaf, the nation's only postsecondary institutions for deaf students.

Gallaudet, located in Washington, operates a model elementary and secondary school for deaf students and conducts research on deaf-education issues.

The bill would authorize research on strategies for teaching minority children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

It also would authorize federal support for new training programs for interpreters in schools.

The measure calls for a scholarship program for deaf students, particularly those from minority backgrounds, who pursue careers in special education.

Lawmakers dropped a provision that would have created a federal panel to provide advice to the Congress and to the Education Department on special education.

"There was not enough support for that in the disability community,'' said Patricia Laird, a legislative analyst for the Select Education Subcommittee, which held hearings on the bill.

She said lawmakers also decided against addressing the least-restrictive-environment issue for deaf students after Mr. Davila announced the Education Department's change in policy.

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