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Deaf right ignite debate
[June 23, 2012]

Deaf right ignite debate

Jun 23, 2012 (The Wilson Daily Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- A handful of state officials, who spoke at a House Judiciary Committee hearing this week regarding the Deaf Child's Bill of Rights, said legislation is already in place that covers rights and policies for children with disabilities.

But deaf advocates and some legislators disagree.

Those who addressed the committee on Wednesday included Wilson's deaf community, officials within the Exceptional Children's Division of the Department of Public Instruction, a nonprofit leader, attorney and parent of a child who has moderate hearing loss. Various views on the issue ignited debate.

The bill, if moved forward, would give deaf and hard of hearing children specific rights when it comes to their education. It would also give parents the right to choose where their child is educated that best fits their child's needs -- a residential school or regular public school.

Some officials have said that currently, a deaf or hard of hearing child must go through the their local public system first before options are discussed further. And sometimes, parents aren't aware the deaf schools exist, according to previous interviews with parents of children who now attend the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf. Wilson leaders have previously said the bill is about fully informing parents about options.

And they believe the bill is meaningful to Wilson County with its established deaf and hard of hearing community along with the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf.

'SIGNIFICANT CONCERNS' Leanne Winner, director of government relations for the N.C. School Board Association and the N.C. Council for School Attorneys, said school attorneys in special education have "significant" concerns regarding the bill. Winner said they also believe that the bill would increase litigation against school districts across the state if passed.

She said many points in the bill are already covered under the state's Individuals with Disabilities Education Act plan (IDEA) -- a federal law mandating that each student with a disability and enrolled in the Exceptional Children's program have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). It aims to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment possible.

"We don't believe it's necessary," Winner said referring to the bill of rights.

Winner listed several concerns with the legal language in the bill, including a section that references the word "right," which goes onto list what those rights entail.

"By changing that to a 'right' that causes school attorneys even more concern about litigation in this area," she said.

'THE LIST WOULD GO ON' Another area in the bill describes that a deaf or hard of hearing child has a right to participation in all parts of a school program, including after-school, social and athletic functions.

"That gives them a right that no other children in our schools have," she said, adding that it should be they are required to the "same access" to those as regular students instead.

Winner continued to say that another area of the bill, attorneys contend, is in conflict with Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"Under IDEA, restrictiveness refers to access to non-disabled peers," she said. "A regular education classroom is not more restrictive than a separate school. A regular education classroom may not be the least restrictive environment for a particular student but it is not more restrictive." Winner pointed out to that officials conducted a rewrite of the special education laws in North Carolina a few years ago to ensure they were in line with federal laws.

"That was a massive two-year rewrite coming from a House Select Committee that everyone participated in and everyone was in agreement," Winner said.

She said IDEA is up for reauthorization next year at the federal level, and anticipates there will be changes made at the federal level that legislators would need to react to later on.

Winner added the attorneys would not like to see any changes at this time.

"You could begin the road by the passage of this bill, of next year taking this bill, changing this for autistic students, changing it for sight-impaired students and the list would go on and on and on," she said. "And every year you would have another group in here asking for their bill of rights." RIGHTS OF OTHERS Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, a Democrat who represents Wilson and Edgecombe counties, later addressed the committee.

"It would be great if we did not need a bill of rights anywhere in this country for people who are deaf or hearing impaired," she said. "It would be great if we did not need bills introduced in this country because someone is a female or an African-American. But the reality is, at times, we have to make a statement and we have to educate and make people sensitive to the needs of others." She said the bill of rights was influenced with that purpose -- to make people sensitive to the fact that the children have a right to an appropriate, accessible education.

"They have a right to have options available to address their needs, whether it's in the public school system or in a residential facility," she continued. "Indeed, they have rights that we all need to be aware of in terms of ensuring their vocational needs are being assessed. They have a right to various communication modes to assess their educational needs." Farmer-Butterfield said she is proud to be a sponsor of the bill.

"And I don't see it as an inconvenience," she said. "That perhaps, because this particular bill is being introduced to address the rights and needs of people who are deaf or hearing impaired that then there would be other bills of right, and that you will be confronted with one every session. If that's what it takes in this state and in this country to make people aware of the rights of other human beings, then so be it." OPPOSITION Tom Griffin, Exceptional Children director for Rutherford County Schools and also the president of N.C. Council of Administrators of Special Education, told leaders that there is "not an EC director or special (education) director in the state that supports the bill." Griffin said they feel there is already legislation in place to take care of everything that's been referenced in the bill of rights.

He said they make sure parents and children, when they are old enough, have input in the Individualized Education Plan process in regards to the most appropriate educational process for those children with disabilities.

He said Rutherford County has eight children who are either deaf or hard of hearing and six of them have been educated at the North Carolina School for the Deaf. The other two, one of whom is younger, are now in the public school system. He said as of right now, those parents have chosen to have to their children educated in the school system.

"They were made aware of all the choices," he said. "It's a choice that they made." Griffin agreed with Winner saying they have policies and procedures already in place, adding that those are North Carolina's interpretation of IDEA.

WHAT IS BEST FOR CHILDREN Wilson resident Hal Wright, who is deaf, called their comments "a lot of theory on paper" and said that one thing has been left out during all the discussion.

"I have not heard anybody speak about how the deaf child feels in the public school, in that setting, in that least restrictive environment at all," Wright said through interpreter Ben King. "Think about the children in the public schools. If they are the only one in that school, is that the least restrictive environment with no access to communication?" Wright said an interpreter is not a good third party communicator.

"Do you want that student to grow up until it's too late for language acquisition and then come over to the residential schools when we are facing many, many children who are language delayed?" he said. "And DPI is responsible for that, for not providing the appropriate open communication for deaf children at all." He also said the officials who spoke before him have not talked about the human aspect of deafness.

"I have not heard that at all today," he said. "And that's bewildering and shocking to me. That people are here talking, but there is no sensitivity. Maybe there is a lack of sensitivity training?" Wright, a former educator at ENCSD, said when deaf children see one person use sign language they become passionate and excited, which in return develops their language.

"When they are in public school or other environments, where do they get that interaction?" he said, adding they are the only student in the room.

He said relying on an interpreter, particularly when the child becomes an adult, is not a way to become independent in the world.

"My concern is ... what is the best thing for this deaf child?" he said. "For your information, there are 13 states that have approved this similar bill and I have heard nothing about conflicts in those states. So where is the concern?" He said maybe those officials have a fear that other disability groups will ask for the same rights.

He doesn't believe that's the case in this bill.

"Our bill is speaking to deaf children's rights to language, language development and communication," Wright said.

'APPLES TO APPLES' Tom Winton, director for the Exceptional Children division with the Department of Public Instruction, said the department is committed to supporting all schools, including the achievement of children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

"We would hope there would be instead of a focus on assumed needs, and perhaps, some stereotypes, there would be more of a focus on achievement and progress of students and access to the general curriculum and the progress of that curriculum," Winton told the committee.

He said one cause of concern is that there has been no data shown on the number of students, their achievements and where that achievement is taking place.

"The fact is there are a little over 3,000 students who are deaf or hard of hearing in North Carolina public schools," he said, adding that 95 percent of them are educated in regular public schools.

Winton said the achievement of those children in regular public schools settings, "far exceeds" the achievement of students in the more restrictive in residential settings.

"That's not a judgment," he said. "That is simply a fact." Winton cited data, saying 40 percent of deaf or hard of hearing children in grades 3 through 8 in regular public school settings demonstrated proficiency on their End Of Grade tests in reading.

He said that less than 5 percent of children in residential schools demonstrated proficiency in reading.

"The figures on which I speak are kind of an apples to apples comparison," Winton said. He said those specific groups of students have already been determined by the Individualized Educational Plan team as being able to take regular assessments. Winton said there are alternate assessments available for children with multiple disabilities. He said the IEP team decides which is appropriate for that child.

Winton also agrees that sufficient rights and policies are in place in North Carolina that apply to all children with disabilities.

'APPLES TO ORANGES' But some deaf advocates and deaf educators, as well as officials, believe those figures are skewed and flawed.

"These problems continue to come up time and time again," said Herb Pickell through the interpreter. Pickell, who is deaf and in favor of the bill, has been involved with the issues of deafness for 55 years, he said.

"When people assume that children are properly served ... quite often what I see is the failure in the public schools and then they are brought to the residential schools for the deaf," he said. "DPI is comparing those deaf students in public schools to those deaf students in residential schools. And what they are actually doing is comparing apples with oranges." He said he thinks it's time for objectivity regarding children with different disabilities.

"What has been said earlier does not hold any water," he said.

Pickell said deaf children have a very unique need as far as communication.

"We have fully educated people here trying to explain what they mean by communication," he said. "When these children are in public schools, I think it's very selfish that self-serving people are making decisions and not for the child. There is no way to have personal growth or bonding with peers in the classroom, because typically they are alone. And to me, that's not being educated at all." Pickell said it's time to really assess what is in the best interest for these children and to stop having people say that everything is in place.

"If everything was in place and we had the law, and we have DPI, if this were all true, then we would not have the problems we currently have," he said. "So I am saying we need to be more open, more honest and we need to find the best possible way in order to serve each individual that is deaf, each individual deaf child. They have just as much rights as the other kids. But that's not typically, totally true at this time." RIGHT TO CHOOSE Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Republican who represents Burke County and is one of the main sponsors of the bill, addressed the committee after all public comments were heard. He said while he took down notes, the issues remain the same.

"We can stick with the status quo, which is what's been advocated by most of the speakers here," he said referring to those who opposed the bill.

During the committee meeting a parent, whose son has moderate hearing loss, said he had a great experience from kindergarten through 12th grade being mainstreamed. She also said she was made aware of decisions regarding his communication needs in education.

She said she believes the bill is unnecessary.

Blackwell said he was glad that her child was appropriately placed in a regular classroom setting and succeeded. But he said he's trying to create a balance for those who deal with parents and students regularly and making them fully aware of the range of educational opportunities early on, whether that is in a public school or residential setting.

He said the bill is not "adding to" the legal requirements but is consistent with IDEA law. Blackwell is also an attorney.

Blackwell would still like to move the bill forward due to the timing of the short session. He said he was also open to change words here and there within the bill. But the language of the bill is written with the intent to not force "particular choices but to leave flexibility," he said. -- 265-7879 ___ (c)2012 The Wilson Daily Times (Wilson, N.C.) Visit The Wilson Daily Times (Wilson, N.C.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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