Deaf education vote is the latest parental rights battle in LA

The Los Angeles Unified School District is poised to vote on a controversial proposal that could reshape education for thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, over a long national battle over how such children learn language.

Oscar winner Marlee Matlin and the American Civil Liberties Union are among those urging the Board of Education to pass Resolution 029-21 / 22 at its meeting Tuesday, inaugurating a new Department of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Education.

The move would elevate American Sign Language along with Korean, Mandarin, French, Arabic, Armenian, Japanese and Spanish into the district’s dual language and bilingual program. Students will be eligible to receive the state seal of biliteracy on their diplomas, and ASL will be offered a language course in some high schools.

The resolution will also introduce ASL-English bilingual instruction for many of the district’s youngest deaf learners – a move supporters say is critical to language equality and opponents say robs parents of choice and runs afoul of federal education law.

“For 400 years at least there has been a big battle between people who think children should be hearing loss, and people who think they should use sign language – it’s a very old argument,” said Alison M. Grimes, director of audiology and newborn. hearing at UCLA Health. “This is the leading edge of a nationwide push to have all early intervention programs become more cognizant and more balanced or more open to kids using ASL. It’s very controversial. ”

Currently, the majority of the district’s roughly 2,100 deaf and hard-of-hearing students learn in oral classrooms, either in general education or in listening special day classes. They begin early intervention programs in infancy and transition to district preschools at age 3, most are ever exposed to ASL.

Typically, only those who can’t access spoken language at all or who “fail out” in mainstream classrooms are offered ASL, often in the form of “total communication,” which supporters of the resolution say lacks the rigor of a bilingual model. The ’80s-era educational philosophy combines instruction in ASL and spoken English with lip reading, gestures, finger spelling and “signed English,” a method both sides of the current debate don’t agree with.

“This is not a new fight for us – this is something that we have been fighting for, and finally we have the attention of, the LAUSD board, “said Janette Durán-Aguirre, a school counselor for the district, who is Deaf and supports the proposal. “Especially for marginalized families, BIPOC families, families who don’t use English at home – these kids have been deprived on top of deprivation, on top of marginalization. We’re doing this for these students. “

Many deaf educators, activists, district parents and students agree, pointing to years of research showing that although early intervention programs begin in infancy, most deaf and hard-of-hearing children still enter school with significant language delays.

The studies show that those in the LAUSD are roughly half as likely to test as proficient in English / language arts as their nondisabled peers.

But hundreds of others, including many parents and listening and spoken-language specialists, say American Sign Language is being forced on them by a radical fringe.

“My daughter can hear amazingly well [with assistive technology]”We don’t need sign language,” Van Nuys mom Hailey Cohen wrote on a Change.org petition opposing the rule. “This is a horrendous violation of our freedom and rights as parents.”

The debate over whether and how to introduce ASL into the second-largest school district is the latest salvo in a fierce and enduring conflict that has only deepened in recent years, as newborn screenings have become universal and cochlear implants are approved for children as young. as 9 months.

In LA, this longtime conflict is being argued in decidedly 2020s terms, with supporters adopting the language of equity and inclusion, and opposing trumpeting parents’ rights and decrying government overreach.

Ellie Shmilovich, 12, center, a deaf sixth-grader, with parents Heidy Alvarenga and Alon Shmilovich at their home in Reseda. Ellie has an interpreter in a mainstream classroom.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“Parents are their children’s first teacher, not the school district,” said Donna L. Sorkin of the Cochlear Implant Alliance, who is defending and opposing the change. “They’re going to require every child to learn ASL, and if that’s not the family’s desire, that’s a violation of federal law.”

Question in federal law is IDEA – The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act – which gives parents of disabled children significant input into what educational services and accommodations their children receive.

It also requires that students be placed in the “least restrictive environment,” a provision that emerges from a long and shameful history of segregating deaf and blind students into underfunded and substandard schools, warehousing those with physical disabilities into basements and denying admission to the intellectually disabled. Children, among other forms of exclusion and abuse.

Supporters say their resolution and the law are not in conflict, that framing the issue with parents on one side and activists on the other ignores how most parents’ deaf children understand the options they are being given when they are asked to choose between spoken English and ASL.

Indeed, the vast majority of parents of deaf children have never met a deaf person before their infant is transferred to the delivery room, or they will meet one of the audiologists, otorhinolaryngologists and other pediatric specialists their child will see in their early years.

Studies show that children entering school with far lower language proficiency than those raised by deaf parents, whether or not children use spoken English or sign language in the classroom.

“Parent choice … is being used as a weapon,” said Mallorie Evans, an educational audiologist who supports the proposal. “You can’t make a choice when you don’t have information.

“In the beginning, you should be providing families with everything,” she said. “That ‘s not the same as saying’ every single kid who comes to LAUSD must learn ASL. ‘ What it says is that ASL and English, whether spoken or visual, should be offered systematically to all families “of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Opponents say that logic does not square with the demographics of deafness, since most children served by the district’s existing program have at least some hearing – including many who are hard of hearing with only one ear – and most of the rest now receive cochlear implants. in infancy or early toddlerhood.

Rather than amplifying sound, as hearing aids do, cochlear implants send electrical signals directly to the auditory nerve, via an implant in the inner ear combined with an external sensor. With training, the device will allow most users to hear and understand speech. But it can also be used to exhaust, and often requires surgical revision to work optimally.

Experts point out that not every family has the same access to high-quality, well-fitted hearing aids, or to use the surgical revisions and training necessary to cochlear implant successfully. Nor can families predict ahead of time how well an implant will eventually work, or what degree of hearing the child will retain over time.

“You need a lot of services, and Medicaid doesn’t have that perfect cover,” said Tawny Holmes Hlibok, a language planning and policy consultant at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. Children under 5 “Who got technical devices might still struggle with acquisition language. Only a very small percentage, those [whose parents] are white and well-educated, got the services they need. ”

That leaves many of the most marginalized students without meaningful language access, say supporters of the resolution.

“ASL wasn’t even offered to my parents,” said LAUSD’s Durán-Aguirre. “I work with so many families, and many of them are clueless, they are lost, they have no idea where to begin. What are the options? Which one is the best? How do I pick something? Until their kids fail out of other programs and as a last resort they get put in [ASL program]. “

The alternative she and others envision is approaching the bilingual and dual-language immersion programs that have proliferated throughout the district last decade, including a new Japanese program in the 2021 and Filipino one in the 2022-23 school year.

Opponents say bilingual instruction is a burden for parents and a stumbling block for deaf children, who already lack the passive exposure to language that hearing babies get every day. But supporters say language deprivation is a more urgent crisis, an existing intervention has failed to resolve.

“In our representation of many deaf adults who have been drawn into the criminal legal system around the country, we have seen adverse effects of childhood language deprivation,” said Attorney West Resendes of the ACLU’s national disability rights program, which is deaf. General Chat Chat Lounge “The idea that you could acquire a signed language and that would impede your ability to acquire a spoken language is just not supported by the research.”

Instead, kids like Ellie Shmilovich are forced into options that don’t fit them.

“Sometimes I would really struggle,” said the sixth-grader, the only Deaf student in the classroom who recently gave an enthusiastic presentation to the silent-film star Charlie Chaplin at his listening classmates at Nobel Middle School in Northridge. “I don’t know if the other kids learned anything or not – my friend told me they weren’t really listening, because at times the interpreter was trying to get caught up.”

Like most deaf children in the district, she was fitted with a cochlear implant as an infant and placed in a speaking-and-listening early intervention program. Her parents, who had grown up bilingual in Hebrew and Spanish, respectively, and who each spoke with their native tongue, their older daughter Estie, were given strict instructions to create a monolingual environment for their second child.

A girl with her parents, brother and sister.

Ellie Shmilovich, 12, center, a deaf sixth-grader, with her parents Heidy Alvarenga and Alon Shmilovich, brother Elias Shmilovich, 9, and sister Estie Shmilovich, 14, at their home in Reseda. The parents, who are bilingual, were given strict instructions to create a monolingual environment for Ellie.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“We were directed to [speak only English]”Said Ellie’s father, Alon Shmilovich. “We eliminated all the other languages ​​from our house, and we were all focused on spoken English, trying to get her to speak a language she would never hear.”

Although they started learning ASL as a family when Ellie was 2, Heidy Alvarenga said her daughter was forced to “fail out” on a mainstream kindergarten before being placed in an ASL program, leaving only because the other children were just learning to sign, while she was already fluent.

Ultimately, Ellie ends up with an interpreter in a mainstream classroom, where she is doing well. But her parents grieve the opportunities she may have had in a bilingual program.

“I had all this misinformation that I built around my parenting,” Alvarenga said, fighting back tears. “I deprived my children of our culture, our languages, all because I was not provided choices.”

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