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Early Intervention and Longterm Support Key for Deaf Students

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Exposing deaf or hard of hearing children to signed or spoken language early is critical to their ability to learn a language. That's one of the findings of a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

But there are some obstacles to providing quality early intervention for all children with hearing problems as well as determining whether those programs are effective.

One of those challenges is that early intervention service providers and schools have trouble attracting and retaining qualified staff. Schools and service providers have difficulty retaining teachers, interpreters, and other staff because these professionals can receive better pay outside of the education system.

The report comes on the heels of the renewal of the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention program in December. The program provides grants to help states develop programs to ensure that children referred from state screening programs receive prompt evaluations, diagnoses and appropriate interventions. The GAO points out that there is a disconnect between the detection program and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Many early intervention programs are provided under IDEA but the states can't use their early detection and intervention grant money to evaluate those programs. That's because they may not be able to access student data for privacy reasons. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies are working on ways to connect the grant programs and IDEA, the GAO said.

Also, the report found, parents don't always have access to information on the full range of available communication options. As a result, the first service provider with whom parents consult often can heavily influence the decisions parents make. "For example," the GAO report says, "if the family is first referred to an audiologist, experts were concerned that parents would choose a cochlear implant for their child rather than continue learning about other options such as sign language." (A recent news story explored how cochlear implants are changing deaf education.)

Early intervention is so critical because, the report notes, citing a 10-year-old study, the median reading comprehension score of deaf or hard of hearing students at 18 was below the median of fourth-grade hearing students. Another recent report found that higher percentages of youth with hearing impairments scored below the mean across subtests of academic achievement compared with students in the general population, although that study also was based on data nearly a decade old.

Does it matter that the data is from a while back? Yes, Jeanne Prickett, superintendent of the Iowa School for the Deaf told me a few months ago. But maybe not for the reasons you think.

"Regarding 'old' data—not only is the experience probably not different now than previously, it could be worse since more students are being tested on regular education normed tests than at any time in history. We have dropped the specially normed tests for deaf and hard of hearing students and use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and Iowa Test of Educational development—our state proficiency tests. Do our students achieve proficiency? Not as much as we want. Do they show progress? You bet."

But early intervention and appropriate testing aren't enough for students with hearing impairments, many of whom have other disabilities, too. They need unique support as long as they are in school, Barbara Raimondo, government relations liaison for the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf, told me

"Even a slightly hard of hearing child, in a classroom of 25 students, with background noise and a teacher who does not face the class as she writes on the board, will miss huge amounts of classroom information," Ms. Raimondo says. "No wonder deaf and hard of hearing students are behind in reading! Further, research out of the Rochester Institute of Technology indicates that deaf children learn differently than hearing children. Few, if any, regular education environments work to accommodate this."

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