[sasi] Deep division on deafness
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Mon Feb 27 19:37:42 EST 2012
Deep division on deafness
At Statehouse, 2 sides quarrel over better education method
Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette
INDIANAPOLIS - A philosophical battle is raging at the Indiana Statehouse that is as bitter as any partisan divide this year.
But it's not about busting labor unions or a hot-button social issue. It's about educating Indiana's deaf and hard-of-hearing children.
And Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration has inserted itself in the middle of an enduring national debate between sign language and a listening/spoken approach.
House Bill 1367 on its face seems innocuous - setting up an independent center for deaf and hard-of-hearing education.
But it has galvanized the deaf community, which has turned out in droves to every movement of the legislation. Typists have translated the words of the participants on screens, and interpreters have used sign language to keep those attending informed.
Legislators, meanwhile, are stuck trying to understand a cultural war that is far larger than the bill itself.
"There is a view that any change in the structure means someone is winning and someone is losing," said Adam Horst, head of Indiana's Office of Management and Budget. "The trust issues between the two sides are so deep I've never seen anything like it."
The divide nationally is between parents who prefer sign language for their deaf or hard-of-hearing children and parents who focus on teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing children to listen and speak with the assistance of modern advanced hearing aids and cochlear implants.
The debate goes back to the 1880s and has snaked through history.
Naomi Horton, executive director at Hear Indiana, said the rift is at a tipping point nationally, with about half the states rethinking how deaf education is handled.
That's where the Indiana School for the Deaf gets involved. It was established in 1843 as the first state-sponsored deaf school in the U.S. Its annual budget is about $16.5 million, most of which goes to running the day and residential school located in Indianapolis
About 330 students are enrolled there. Overall, more than 2,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing school-aged children live in Indiana, with most attending school in their own districts.
A small part of the school's budget funds the other two missions of the school - outreach and consultative services. Outreach involves educating parents of deaf or hard-of-hearing children about state services and options. The consultation services are provided to local school districts to help mainstream children.
The bill would separate the duties of outreach and consultation from the Indiana School for the Deaf, moving those programs to an independent center on deaf education run by another agency in state government. But many of the details are left up to the Office of Management and Budget and a transition team.
Critics of the Indiana School for the Deaf say the separation is necessary because the school almost exclusively focuses on sign language and steers parents away from oral learning.
"Historically there has been one way to do deaf, but the medical landscape has changed," said Fort Wayne father Chris Mann, who has three deaf or hard-of-hearing sons. "We object to a pervasive mentality and habit of referring scared young parents away from some choices."
He spoke in favor of the bill during a recent hearing, noting that his 13-year-old son received "bionic ears" when he was younger and is only just now learning some sign language.
"It is first and foremost about parental choice. It is not going to serve us well to have one methodology for all families," Horton said. "This bill allows parents to make an informed choice and to be supported."
Indiana School for the Deaf officials declined to comment.
Bias charges fly
But Horst - appointed by Daniels to the deaf school's board in 2010 - said each side accuses the other of being biased.
He said it's a conflict for a service provider - the Indiana School for the Deaf - to also be an information provider.
"We just want parents to have all the information they need to make the best decision for their child," Horst said. "Then all the service providers can be as passionate as they should be about their beliefs."
An Office of Management and Budget employee spent months auditing and assessing the school before making the recommendation.
"It is rare that OMB has suggested the creation of a new center in their reviews of hundreds of state programs and services," the agency admitted in a Dec. 11 operational review of the school. "However, OMB believes this function is too important to allow the services to be delivered in such a fractured and confusing manner."
The bill originally left almost all the implementation of a new center up to that office, from what agency to place it in to staffing and funding decisions after a transition team came up with recommendations. Some amendments have softened it but not completely.
Opponents say bean-counters are making decisions for a deaf community that has far more knowledge and expertise than they do.
Kim Bianco, of the Indiana Deaf Education Coalition, said Horst's office has no proof of any bias - citing anecdotes on both sides of the debate.
Bianco, who was born deaf and uses sign language, also has two deaf children at the Indiana School for the Deaf.
She said she believes lawmakers are trying to do what's good.
"But I question the push coming from the administration," Bianco said. "We didn't ask for this. Legislators are voting on something outside their scope, and they need to be careful."
The underlying current in the debate is about money - specifically whether the Indiana School for the Deaf will lose some of its funding to private deaf schools.
Bianco said the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf in Indianapolis - an oral-only school that doesn't use sign language - is chasing after the state funding.
St. Joseph is under contract with the state through the First Steps program to provide oral language services chosen by parents.
Teri Ouellette, director of St. Joseph, said the bill doesn't specifically address funding issues and she doesn't know that her school would be in line for more state funding or not.
But Horton, who supports the legislation, acknowledged the debate is partly about money.
She said the majority of parents choosing listening and spoken language don't see any of the state funding, instead covering copays through the First Steps program at St. Joseph.
But services are free for those families who have chosen sign language at the Indiana School for the Deaf.
Fears over funding
A recent amendment to the legislation tries to make clear that the Indiana School for the Deaf will not lose money - at least not until the legislature gets to weigh in again next year when passing a new two-year state budget.
Opponents also fear the bill is moving the state one step closer to closing the Indiana School for the Deaf altogether - perhaps fueled by the Daniels' administration's penchant for shutting down state facilities.
Examples include the Fort Wayne State Development Center, the Silvercrest Children's Development Center and the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's Home.
Horst said that is not true - noting the Indiana Constitution says, "It shall be the duty of the General Assembly to provide, by law, for the support of institutions for the education of the deaf, the mute, and the blind; and, for the treatment of the insane."
Rep. Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, said he voted against the bill in the House partly because he doesn't understand the administration's intense interest in a small part of the state's overall budget.
"A lot of my constituents don't have confidence in the system being proposed and it's a bigger groundswell than I anticipated," he said. "They want details before they sign on. They are worried about it getting stuck inside the administration."
nkelly at jg.net
© Copyright 2012 The Journal Gazette. All rights reserved. Neither this material nor its presentation may be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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