Hearing loss should not impede a student’s learning.

In fact, many in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, including educators who work with the population, are adamant that it should not be considered a learning disability.

The state Legislature made a move in clear support of this message, and Acting Governor Sheila Y. Oliver signed two pieces of legislation into law in August 2019, establishing a Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights and a Working Group on Deaf Education.

“Both the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights and the Working Group on Deaf Education will help raise awareness of and work toward addressing the need for early intervention for children who are deaf and hard of hearing,” said Amy Andersen, American Sign Language teacher at Ocean City High School and the 2017-2018 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, as well as a 2018 National Teacher of the Year finalist. “Children with hearing loss often do not have a strong language foundation, because they are deprived early on of an accessible language. This often leads to them falling behind in their math and reading, not because they have a learning disability, but because they did not get the same start as their peers.”

Andersen, who lobbied on behalf of both pieces of legislation, says that the new laws signal a shift in recognizing “Deaf as a culture, not a disability.”

Help Available for Navigating New Legislation New Jersey’s Department of Education (NJDOE) is tasked with establishing the Working Group on Deaf Education to make recommendations on issues related to the early linguistic development of youth who are deaf or hard of hearing. The NJDOE is also working to make school districts aware of the contents of the legislation.

Leading that effort is the NJDOE Coordinator of Deaf Education Wendy Eufemia.

“I’m currently conducting presentations and providing technical assistance regarding the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights to the directors of special education in all counties across New Jersey, as well as to programs, stakeholders and at conferences,” said Eufemia, who entered this role in June 2019. “The purpose is to ensure that school districts are aware of their obligations with regard to implementing the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights and provide resources to support them.”

In addition to its emphasis on screenings and assessments, the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights codifies many previously mandated practices that schools may not always follow, including turning closed captioning on when showing a video in class to ensure full access to the material. “Teachers don’t always think to turn it on, but the ADA has mandated this since 1990,” said Andersen.

She added that Ocean City School District also ensures there is a visual element to notify students of lockdowns or other safety procedures by using a projector in each classroom to work in tandem with a verbal announcement. All teachers also wear FM microphones, which help students with various degrees of hearing loss. “These are things that all schools could easily implement.”

Options Support Student Success  The Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights calls on districts to inform guardians of students who are deaf and hard of hearing of all placement considerations, including the state-run Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf, New Jersey’s County Special Services School Districts, the Lake Drive Program for deaf and hard of hearing children in the Mountain Lakes school district and the many other options throughout the state — all listed on the NJDOE’s website under “Resources for Students with Hearing Loss or Deaf-Blindness.”

“This aspect of the legislation is especially important to those of us who work with students who are deaf and hard of hearing, because we know that each student has a unique set of needs,” said Rasheda Garcia, a teacher of the deaf and trained educational interpreter who serves students through the Educational Services Unit of the Burlington County Special Services School District. “We need all districts to recognize that deaf education is varied – you will never find two students with the same profile. It’s complicated to address and requires specific resources to ensure that students who are deaf and hard of hearing have equal shots at success.”

Garcia explained that placing a student with an educational interpreter in a classroom may seem like adequate support for that student, but that student may miss context clues to help decipher the meaning of a word that has multiple definitions. As a result, that student may not fully grasp the lesson and start falling behind. It may not be obvious to those on the outside that the student could keep up if presented with the material in a more accessible way.

“I hope that the legislation passed over the summer leads to increased conversations between those of us who work closely with the students and those who make the decisions,” she said.

An equally important part of that conversation with districts, according to Kathleen LoCascio, principal of the Hearing Continuum of Bergen County Special Services School District, is that students shouldn’t have to show a delay to receive services. “We shouldn’t look for signs of failure to then offer services. We should be motivated to provide services based on our desire to provide equal access.”

LoCascio recalled a moment early in her career when a student was doing so well that she was afraid he would be pulled back into his home district. She had a powerful conversation with the student’s case manager. “We both agreed that this student had the right to do beautifully, had the right to be at the top of his class and had the right to get to that point with the support that he needed,” she explained. “That student may have been an average student without that support, but with it, he was excelling in his education.”

At Bergen County Special Services School District, LoCascio oversees comprehensive programming for youth who are deaf and hard of hearing and their families. “We offer two tracks: one is for total communication, so if a family chooses to have a child utilize total communication, which includes ASL, we can support that through this track,” she explained. “Another is an auditory and spoken language track for those families who choose a listening and spoken language outcome in their child’s education.” She hopes that the importance placed in the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights on making families aware of all placement options for their child simultaneously increases awareness of their options to select or blend approaches.

Community and Culture are CriticalGiven the expansiveness of Bergen County Special Services School District’s programs, students who are deaf and hard of hearing have opportunities to interact with their peers — another emphasis of the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights. Other specialized programs at the Lake Drive program and the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf also build large communities of deaf and hard of hearing learners and celebrate deaf culture.

Although the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf is centrally located in Trenton, traveling that far or enrolling in its residential program is not ideal for all students and their families. The good news is that professionals and services exist throughout the state, with the NJDOE focused on increasing collaboration to better serve the deaf and hard of hearing community — in all pockets of the state.

Ocean City’s Andersen said that her ideal is for every region to collaborate and pool resources to ensure that students who are deaf and hard of hearing are together for educational programming and extracurricular activities. “It’s so important for deaf and hard of hearing students to embrace deaf culture, to fully be themselves and have shared experiences with their peers, as well as role models,” she said.  “I’m hopeful that we can intentionally shift the focus on what is best for the academic, social and emotional success of the child despite the pressures on school leaders and school boards to keep financial costs down.”

Funding Sources, Partners Help Districts Serve Students Even those asserting that hearing loss is not a learning disability strongly advocate for their students to have IEPs to receive specialized programs and services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). They emphasize that without such accommodations, the students will not get equal access to learning the curricula.

According to the NJDOE, school districts may use their allocated IDEA funds to support services and programming for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Additionally, Special Education Extraordinary Aid is available to support special education students whose IEPs require the provision of one or more intensive services, which may include an educational interpreter that is required for more than 50 % of the instructional day. Districts with costs exceeding the state’s threshold can apply for reimbursement up to a specific amount for the cost of the intensive service.

Dr. Howard Lerner, superintendent of Bergen County Special Services School District, also serves as chairman of the New Jersey Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts, which includes the state’s eight county special services school districts. He encourages public school districts to visit the Joint Council’s website, to find deaf and hard of hearing services in their region, emphasizing the Joint Council’s goal “to provide specialized placements and offer cost-effective shared services for local districts to help all students reach their greatest potential.” He noted that many of the county special services districts also have experts in place to help their regional public partners navigate the standards in the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights. “We are all partners when it comes to educating New Jersey’s students.”

State Champions Best PracticesThe NJDOE has set the tone for collaboration among those serving the deaf and hard of hearing community across the state. It previously facilitated a Deaf Education Advisory Group to create a set of recommendations to the commissioner of education to ensure educational equity for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, through the provision of a continuum of programs and services in New Jersey.

Next, look for the NJDOE to hold biannual administrators’ roundtable meetings to support programs and school districts, and for educators to share best practices and ideas on how to provide students who are deaf or hard of hearing with a range of services, including those in areas that may be underserved.

In the meantime, the NJDOE’s Wendy Eufemia continues her tour throughout the state. She is working closely with colleague Kara Rogers, the NJDOE’s educational consultant for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Rogers provides technical assistance at the student level, including classroom observations, staff professional development and accommodations guidance.

Initial Steps to Serve Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students According to Eufemia, when a student who is deaf or hard of hearing first enters a school district, the child study team should work through the process of determining if the student requires an IEP or 504 Plan, and the type of programming and accommodations needed. Districts should use the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights to guide their decision making. One aspect that may challenge districts as they implement the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights is the communication plan that they’ll need to include in the student’s IEP or 504 Plan. The NJDOE is in the process of creating a New Jersey Communication Plan sample template to assist districts with this requirement.

Eufemia encourages districts to reach out to her at dhh.education@doe.nj.gov with questions about not only the communication plan, but anything else related to serving deaf and hard of hearing students. Additionally, she recommends the publication “Optimizing Outcomes for Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: Educational Service Guidelines” from the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE), 2018, which is online.

Allyson Roberts is vice president of Laura Bishop Communications.