‘The world is designed for people that are not deaf’: Locals seek deaf education reform

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Lopez uses sign with her son. (Mariah Pohl)
Lopez uses sign language to teach the word “please” to her son. (Mariah Pohl)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Adriana Lopez is deaf. So are her parents, her aunt and her 18-month-old son, CJ.

While deaf children born to deaf families tend to have an extensive support system growing up, that’s not always the case for deaf children with hearing parents, who are often struggle to approach communication with their kids, Lopez said.

According to Lopez, the state needs to do more to make educational resources available to families navigating hearing loss.

“As a parent, you want to open all doors for your children and make sure you give them support and encourage them,” she said. “But parents will sometimes focus on ways to improve their child’s hearing, rather than find ways to help them develop their sign language skills.”

When the development of language skills is neglected, even for just a few months, children can become language deprived, said Lopez, who’s father was a victim of language deprivation.

“He grew up speaking orally, but it wasn’t until he found American Sign Language at the age of 13 that he learned language,” she said. “He has thrived very well since.”

Growing up, Lopez said she was exposed to both the deaf community and hearing individuals.

“I got to see and experience both sides, and the differences in the language that the deaf community has,” she said. “From that experience — and the experiences of my parents — my husband and I wanted to make sure we gave my son all the resources that we could.”

(Mariah Pohl)
Lopez’s son uses hearing aids, but is also learning to sign. (Mariah Pohl)

But finding those resources has been a challenge. According to Lopez, most medical professionals wanted to limit her son to just one method of communication.

“I was told we would have to choose sign or speech for my son, but not both,” she said. “I had a fight to get him in speech therapy. It just wasn’t a priority for them.”

As a member of the deaf community, Lopez felt it was a necessity to have access to both skills, but she fears hearing families are being misled about communication with their deaf children.

“I imagine they would assume this approach to speech and language is normal, but it’s not,” she said. “Just like you wouldn’t tell your child that they can only excel in a specific career, you shouldn’t restrict them to just one form of communication.”

According to Irene Schmalz, liaison to the deaf and hard of hearing at the Center for Family Involvement at Virginia Commonwealth University, the debate between the best language acquisition method is hotly contested within the deaf and medical community.

Schmalz, who uses both hearing aids and sign language to offset her profound hearing loss, educates new parents with deaf children.

“A lot of the parents I work with are very nervous because they have never been exposed to anyone that is deaf,” she said. “It’s critical that they understand the different options for their children, and I work very hard to provide unbiased information.”

Despite an increase in support for the deaf community, the resources available to deaf individuals aren’t consistently implemented, particularly among young children, Schmalz said.

“Getting the appropriate services to deaf children is a problem. Just because a child is able to speak well doesn’t mean their needs are being accommodated,” she said. “I worry about situations where there is a lack of communication between parents and their children.”

The LEAD-K bill, also known as House Bill 1873 and Senate Bill 983, was supposed to improve access to resources and information that introduce the parents of deaf children to these topics, but did not make it to consideration at the legislative level.

LEAD-K, which stands for Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids, aimed to promote kindergarten-readiness for deaf children under five years of age — the timeframe in which language acquisition is most important, according to the LEAD-K campaign.

To do this, the bill sought to implement several initiatives across the state of Virginia:

  • Set developmental milestones for all deaf children under five years of age in the state of Virginia.
  • Implement data collection to ensure the best language acquisition methods are being used among medical professionals across the Commonwealth.
  • Establish a 13-member advisory committee to provide advice, guidance, and resources for deaf, deaf-bind, and hard-of-hearing children.
  • The resources would be developed by the Division of Special Education and Student Services of the Department of Education, in collaboration with the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

“We’re asking the state to take more accountability to educate parents. We want to make sure children under five can communicate, because a lot of times those children are not on track.” LEAD-K supporter and Norfolk resident Star Grieser said. “The bill is not reinventing the wheel. It is pulling resources together that are already available.”

Despite support for the bill, it was withdrawn by delegate Brenda Pogge on Jan. 26 before it could be considered by the Virginia General Assembly. According to Pogge, an agreement could not be reached about which state department would enforce the tenants of the bill, particularly when it came to overseeing developmental milestones of children under the age of five.

In the original wording of the bill, the Virginia Department of Education was identified to spearhead the initiative, but Pogge’s Legislative Aide Amanda Etter Batton said the department already implements programs to support deaf children five and up. Therefore, children not yet enrolled in school were outside of their jurisdiction.

“The bill wasn’t structured properly,” she said. “The Department of Education makes resources available for children of school age, so the wording instructing them as the agency in charge would’ve needed to be amended.”

The deadline for the bill ran out before the appropriate changes could be made, Pogge said.

Supporters of the movement hope to resubmit LEAD-K before January 2018, said Grieser, who works as an American Sign Language instructor at Tidewater Community College.

“The world is designed for people that are not deaf,” Grieser said. “We need to get everyone who’s involved with the deaf community and deaf education, regardless of communication modality preference, to come together and support this.”

Lopez’s son is still a few years away from starting school, but thanks to a combination of sign language and speech therapy he is successfully communicating with both the hearing and deaf community.

At 18 months, he already knows more than 25 words in speech and in signs, Lopez said, noting that she hopes the eventual success of the LEAD-K bill will ensure other deaf children experience the same communication success.

“I want to make sure my son and the children he grows up with are hitting their milestones,” she said. “People feel sorry for deaf people, but there is nothing sorry to be about. We are all made differently, and bring a different perspective to the world.”