Special Education

Schools for Deaf Confront Other Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — December 04, 2007 8 min read
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The California School for the Deaf’s Fremont campus will soon start offering a day program for adolescents with a daunting set of educational challenges: autism or severe developmental disabilities, in addition to deafness.

The new class is part of a legal settlement between the school and the parents of a 15-year-old student who believe their daughter is better served in an environment where American Sign Language is used than in a program for hearing students with autism.

The lawyers who represented the family hope the program, set to begin next month, will create a new resource for families that have had few good educational options for their children. But the settlement exposes fault lines within the deaf education community over the best placement for students who face severe disabilities in addition to deafness.

Some say flatly that the parents’ battle with the school is just one example of how some schools for the deaf are trying to pick and choose which students they will serve.

“It would be a tragedy if there weren’t places like the California School for the Deaf, where deaf culture can thrive and flourish,” said William S. Koski, one of the lawyers who represented the student, known by the initials J.C. in court filings, and the director of the Stanford University law school’s Youth and Education Law Project. “What can’t be tolerated is for one disadvantaged group to discriminate against an even more disadvantaged group.”

Other educators say schools for the deaf are being forced to accept students with expensive additional special needs who cannot truly benefit from an environment in which sign language is the primary mode of communication.

Primary Needs

Under the agreement, the new Fremont program will be open to as many as six students and last at least three years, until J.C. turns 18. Mr. Koski said he would like to see the program stay in place permanently. Once other children are enrolled in the program, they will have rights under federal special education law to “stay put” if the school wants to disband the program. The settlement does not apply to the California School for the Deaf’s other campus, in Riverside.

J.C., the student at the center of the case, attended the school for the deaf ever since she enrolled in an early-intervention program at the age of 20 months. In the 2004-05 school year, her parents agreed to a plan in which J.C. would spend half the day at the school for the deaf, and half at a program for students with moderate to severe autism in her home district, the 31,000-student Fremont, Calif., school system.

When the school for the deaf proposed placing J.C. in the traditional school full time, the parents fought the change. The settlement agreement was reached in September 2006 and approved by a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco. J.C. is now enrolled full-time in the program at her home district while the school for the deaf establishes the new program.

Henry Klopping, the superintendent of the Fremont school for 32 years, strongly disputes that the school discriminated against J.C., or any student with multiple disabilities. About 40 percent of the school’s students have disabilities in addition to deafness, he said.

“We have children who are mentally retarded, we have students who are learning-disabled. But, we can’t be all things to all people,” he said. “Their primary handicap is the deafness.”

An environment with sign language may not be best for students with severe cognitive disabilities, Mr. Klopping added. But, faced with the reality of the settlement agreement, the school is committed to doing the best it can for J.C. and the other students who may enroll, he said.

James E. Tucker, the president of the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf, believes that state schools for the deaf are already taking on more than their fair share of students with a multitude of disabilities, with little or no additional resources from the states in which they are located.

“It would be immoral to try to educate children without special-needs funding,” said Mr. Tucker, who is also the superintendent of the 462-student Maryland School for the Deaf, which serves children from infancy through age 21. The school has campuses in Frederick and Columbia, Md.

Until recently, his school accepted students with only mild disabilities in addition to deafness. The state has developed a funding formula, however, that provides extra resources to the school when it enrolls students with multiple disabilities. Deaf students with other mild to profound disabilities are being served at his school now, Mr. Tucker said.

In contrast, the California School for the Deaf receives an allocation from the state legislature each year, and does not get more money from the state when it enrolls more students than expected, Mr. Klopping said.

Mr. Tucker also said that school districts are shifting more deaf students with severe disabilities to programs for the deaf, while putting up roadblocks for parents who may seek that choice for their more academically advanced deaf children. In most states, placement in a state-run school for the deaf must be made by a student’s individualized-education-program team, based at their home district.

Mr. Tucker said that stories of higher-achieving students’ being kept in their home districts, even if that might not be best for them, are common in the small world of deaf education. Parents have said they have had to move to districts that are “friendly” toward schools for the deaf, he said.

The issue exposes the hypocrisy of some school districts and state education departments, Mr. Tucker maintained. “They cannot have it both ways,” he said. “You want us to serve one population? I want us to serve all populations.”

‘Exclusionary Rationale’

Residential state schools have a rich cultural history in the deaf community. Many of them were founded in the early and mid-1800s and thus were among the nation’s first special education programs. The schools have served as incubators for American Sign Language and deaf culture. Alumni cherish the memories of being able to forge social bonds with their peers without the barrier of language differences.

However, since the passage in 1975 of the landmark federal law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public schools have been required to accommodate students with hearing loss, and enrollment at state-run residential schools has fallen sharply. Currently, about 85 percent of the estimated 72,000 K-12 deaf students in the United States attend regular public schools, while 15 percent attend schools or programs for the deaf, Mr. Tucker said. That proportion is down since 1985, when about 33 percent of deaf students were enrolled in such schools.

The special schools offer enrichment for deaf students that regular public schools cannot match, Mr. Tucker believes. In large schools with hearing students, deaf students are often in self-contained classrooms, he said. Or they have to stick so closely to their interpreters that they lose the richness of incidental interactions with classmates.

Those interactions are exactly why schools for the deaf offer a good option for deaf students with additional disabilities, said Thomas W. Jones, a professor of education at Gallaudet University in Washington, the nation’s only liberal arts college for the deaf. The university is one of only a handful in the United States that offer teacher education for those who want to educate deaf students with other disabilities.

Too often, Mr. Jones contended, schools for the deaf try to decide if one disability is “primary” or “secondary.” The thinking, he said, is that if a student’s primary disability is deafness, then he or she can be served. In fact, he said, valid comparisons between the severity of autism and the severity of deafness are impossible to make.

“Nobody knows how these deaf kids can do. Nobody knows what their potential is, until you put them in a place where they can access the language,” Mr. Jones said, referring to deaf students with other disabilities. To speak of “primary” disabilities “is an exclusionary rationale that is not based in reality,” he said. “It allows the schools to accept the students they want to serve.”

There are excellent teachers serving deaf students with multiple disabilities, Mr. Jones said, but no single program rises above another. “They’re nowhere near where they need to be,” he said.

Teacher Shortage

No one knows exactly how many school-age children are deaf and have additional disabilities. Deafness is considered a low-incidence disability, compared with learning disabilities or speech and language problems. Autism, mental retardation, traumatic brain injury, and other disorders that contribute to cognitive delays are also relatively rare.

In a 2005 survey conducted by the Gallaudet Research Institute, 42 percent of more than 37,000 students who responded to a questionnaire indicated they had disabilities in addition to deafness. About 1 percent had autism listed as the additional disability.

“It’s really hard to do a lot of research on these children, because they’re few and far between,” said Mary Pat Moeller, the director of the Center for Childhood Deafness at Boys Town National Research Hospital, in Omaha, Neb., which is a center for the study and treatment of hearing loss and communication disorders.

Children like J.C., the student at the center of the California case, would likely benefit from a multidisciplinary approach to their education, said Ms. Moeller, who has written on the topic of deaf students with multiple disabilities.

“Communication is just such a basic human right,” she said. “We tend to feel that communication is the foundation of all learning.”

The school in Fremont has set up a portable classroom for J.C. and other students who may enroll in the new program. The challenge now is finding a teacher, or teachers, for the program. The state has conducted a nationwide search and is about to attempt its third recruiting effort.

“We are desperate to find people who can do the job,” Mr. Klopping said.

The complexity of educating students with multiple disabilities is very real, said Ms. Moeller, who believes they are best served through a team approach. Students can make real progress, though, with a teacher who is well trained and supported, she added.

“You can really understand the schools for the deaf recognizing their limitations,” she said. “But, maybe they aren’t recognizing the strengths they have to bear.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as Schools for Deaf Confront Other Disabilities

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