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New Guidelines on Educating the Deaf Issued

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WASHINGTON--Responding to concerns that many deaf children are floundering in classes with nondisabled students, the Education Department has issued new guidelines to help educators decide on the best setting for teaching those students.

Federal special-education law requires that all students with disabilities be educated to the "maximum extent appropriate'' in the "least restrictive environment.'' Educators often interpret that mandate to mean neighborhood schools and regular classrooms.

However, deaf students and their parents and advocates contend that such settings may be more isolating than special centers and schools. Without a means of communicating with peers and teachers who do not know sign language, they say, some students who are deaf or hearing impaired may fare poorly in school.

They say the tendency of educators to place deaf children in regular schools is responsible, in part, for the children's low achievement levels.

The guidelines, published in the Oct. 30 issue of the Federal Register, express many of those same concerns.

They note that "some public agencies have misapplied the [least restrictive environment] provision by presuming that placements in or closer to the regular classroom are required for children who are deaf without taking into consideration the range of communication and related needs that must be addressed.''

Any setting that does not meet those needs, the guidelines say, "cannot be considered the least restrictive environment for the child.''

A Clarification

The guidelines, which are intended to clarify existing policy, represent a departure from the views of previous administrations.

Under Madeleine C. Will, the former assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, schools were advised to place more emphasis on where the child would be educated and less on the appropriateness of the program.

The new guidelines, however, mirror recommendations made in 1988 by a national panel formed to study education of the deaf.

Both the National Commission on the Education of the Deaf and the guidelines suggest, for example, that educators weigh several factors in making placement decisions, including the communication needs of the child and the preferred mode of communications of the family; the severity of the hearing loss; and the child's social, emotional, and cultural needs.

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