LANSING, Mich. — About 2,400 children in the state of Michigan are identified as deaf or hard of hearing and a new bill in Michigan could finally give parents the support they need.
“Every second counts when it comes to early language acquisition,” said Annie Urasky, the Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights' Division on Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing.
House Bill 5777 was introduced by the State House Committee on Families, Children, and Seniors in March. It would require the State of Michigan to provide the right resources for parents to make informed decisions for their child’s early language acquisition and education.
Urasky said the diagnosis is typically made by a medical professional, but sometimes, those have minimal resources. “When I was born, I was the only child in my family who was deaf,” Urasky said. “So my parents were hearing and they had never met a deaf person before.” She said the audiologist told her parents on the phone that she was deaf. “You can imagine first-time parents trying to figure out ‘Where do I start?’,” Urasky said.
Jacob Schneider, 9, is one of the 2,400 Michigan children who are deaf and hard of hearing. He was able to get cochlear implants when he was only 15-months-old.
“Most people assume I can hear, and yes, I can hear, just not as well,” Schneider said.
For parents to find out that their child is identified as deaf, deafblind, or hard of hearing can be challenging.
“We are one of the many parents who met the first deaf person in their lifetime, and it was their own child,” said Amanda Schneider, Jacob’s mother and a consultant at the Michigan Department of Education Low Incidence Outreach. Jacob failed the newborn screening in the hospital when he was 24-hours-old. “Then, he failed repeated screens at four and six weeks and we had an official diagnosis of him having profound hearing loss at three-months of age.”
Schneider pointed out that the experience is unique for all families. “For us, it was a roller coaster of emotions,” Schneider said. “We started with some grief, understanding that this idea we had for our son was going to have to change, and then it moved into the process of learning what we can do to support him.”
The Michigan House Committee on Families, Children, and Seniors hope this bill would provide the necessary learning materials, resources, and education for families.
“We really support the idea that every deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing child should have all the tools, all the resources they need and have the same educational experiences that any other hearing child would have,” Urasky said.
Most people don’t know that parents need to make a choice with their child on whether to learn American Sign Language, English, or both.
“American Sign Language is a language,” Urasky said. “It has its own grammar, syntax, sentence structure. English is also a language.”
The bill also aims to provide resources for schools, such as adequate staffing and language assessment tools provided by the Michigan Department of Education.
Roxanne Balfour, the director of the Michigan Department of Education Low Incidence Outreach said the number of schools that have the personnel to provide the “top-quality education that the kids deserve” is limited. She said throughout the state, there are probably five or six established programs. “That’s due to a huge shortage area of teachers of the deaf, hard of hearing teacher consultants, interpreters, and audiologists, all related to this field,” Balfour said, adding that this is also a challenge for administrators and school personnel.
According to Balfour, there isn’t any fully running teacher preparation program in Michigan at a university level. However, the Michigan Department of Education Office of Special Education has created a multi-state teacher preparation program to attract teachers who are already certified to join and receive their endorsement in deaf and hard of hearing. Currently, there are 20 teachers in the program.
“That zero to five age window is critical for the brain development in terms of language acquisition for children to go into an educational environment and be able to be successful and thrive,” Urasky said especially since children with this diagnosis usually will be delayed in the speech learning process, a gap that Urasky hopes to close.
While Jacob got his cochlear implants at 15-months-old, his parents called the cochlear implant activation at 16 months of age ‘day zero.’ “That was day zero of him being able to hear,” Schneider said. “That puts him behind 16 months of access to sound and speech.” Schneider said, for Jacob, this gap closed around the age of four. “That’s when we made the choice to transition him to his home school district.”
Urasky said it’s important to include people who are identified as deaf, deafblind, or hard of hearing in the conversation to give role models to children who share similar experiences.
“Another common barrier we often see is that people make assumptions,” Urasky said. “Just because we might choose to communicate in different ways, whether it's through an interpreter, relying on captioning, writing back and forth, or simply asking for additional time or for clearer communication, it doesn't mean we're not deserving the same level of respect that you give to other people.”
Schneider said families need to adapt and pay attention to challenges the child might face, such as background noise or talking to the child face-to-face instead of from its back.
She said it’s important to understand that “they really might not hear you. They really aren't ignoring you. They sometimes really just don't have access.”
It is important to note that the AP Stylebook guidelines strongly advise against the use of the terms “hearing impaired,” ”deaf-mute” and “deaf and dumb.”
The bill needs to be passed in the house before moving on to a Senate vote.
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