Changes needed to N.L. school system to help deaf, hard of hearing children: report

Deaf and hard of hearing children and their families are experiencing "significant frustration" with the Newfoundland and Labrador school system, and systemic change is needed, states a new report on the matter.

Provincial child and youth advocate Jackie Lake Kavanagh's report, The Sounds of Silence, is the result of conversations and feedback with children, parents, teachers and other stakeholders in order to better understand the challenges deaf and hard of hearing students face in the system.

Those challenges, according to the report, are many.

They range from practical problems such as not being able to lipread when a teacher faces the board and speaks, to staffing shortages that force children in rural areas to go weeks without specialized instruction, to a lack of public understanding that then sends the children a message "that they are broken."

The Newfoundland School for the Deaf in St. John's closed its doors in 2010, and the report stated it heard a strong message that without it, students have lost social connections, classrooms tailored to their needs as well as role models for their futures.

In the face of numerous challenges and hardships, "some participants told us about their heart-wrenching decision to send their children out of province in order to access appropriate education services," says the report, released Tuesday.


Planning ahead

One area in need of work is planning, as the report outlines a current patchwork approach to including deaf and hard of hearing students into the education system, riddled with gaps.

There is no required time frame to notify a school that of a student in need of hearing services, says the report, and parents and professionals both said a mandatory planning approach for each child is needed.

"We clearly heard that improved planning is required to truly welcome a child to a school community," says the report.

Children are expected to adapt to their classroom, versus the classroom accommodating to their needs. - The Sounds of Silence report

Once in the classroom, the report notes, some children receive a dedicated teacher, while others get one hour or less of support every three days, with the report calling assistant hours "inadequate and unpredictable."


That situation is exacerbated in rural areas, where, the report notes, teachers sometimes provide services only every five to six weeks. 

The classrooms themselves often suffer from a lack of universal design, whether it be poor lighting or echoey spaces that exacerbate hearing issues.

"Children are expected to adapt to their classroom, versus the classroom accommodating to their needs," says the report.

Beyond the infrastructure issues, the report notes the emotional toll and isolation deaf and hard of hearing students face daily.

"One contributor said, 'For kids who are deaf, they can be in a room filled with people but still be alone,'" says the report, outlining a school life where children miss out on extracurricular activities because they can't hear morning announcements.

'Unfamiliar ground'

Across the board, the report notes a dearth of American Sign Language teachers and interpreters, an issue that parents said often became apparent upon a child's diagnosis, early in their lives.

"Many talked about being on scary and unfamiliar ground," states the report, which details a need for early childhood interventions, when children are at a critical stage for learning languages, whether it be verbal or ASL.

That unfamiliar ground can give way to frustration, as the report said parents shared their frustrations of fighting for class notes for the kids, quieter rooms, or access to technology.

"Some participants were very frank with us and said this unending need to advocate for their child or student has exhausted them," the report says.

The report acknowledged the complexity of changing the school system to better suit deaf and hard of hearing students, with no one-size-fits-all approach appropriate, but also noted that there were "missed opportunities" to enlist outside expertise.

A regional agency that provides programs for students with some special needs such as deafness, the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, provided no services to Newfoundland and Labrador in the last two years, while in Nova Scotia it served more than 600 children each year, and more than 300 in New Brunswick.

"This indeed appears to be a significant missed opportunity," said the report.


Hope for the future

But the report provides highlights within the current education system that provide spots of hope and models to move forward — how some schools have beefed up ASL resources, with choirs signing or students using ASL in their hallways, and others have added visual signals to sports games.

"These are all important ways to send concrete messages to all students and school communities about the importance of including everyone," said the report.

It also notes there are a host of dedicated professionals and parents enacting change.

Kavanagh's report ends with a call for more "meaningful systemic commitment" to better support deaf and hard of hearing children, emphasizing quality education "is their right."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador