No remake for deaf and blind schools

Published February 14, 2009 12:13 am
'Window dressing' » Bill to fix problems is too weak, parents and advocates say.
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If Kenneth Sumsion was hoping to avoid controversy with a "clean up" bill that makes minor tweaks to educational services for the deaf and blind, he missed the mark.

Parents and advocates were expecting a revamp of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind (USDB). But HB296, the product of two years of study, falls short of that. The legislation is more remarkable, advocates say, for what it doesn't do.

The bill doesn't restrict enrollment to students who need it most, those with multiple and severe disabilities, as some have advocated. Other parents argue that even though the bill appears to make more children eligible for services, there is no guarantee that those with milder impairments will get early interventions, such as sign language and braille.

It makes small changes in governance, skirting the question of whether the institution should be split into one school for blind, and another for deaf students. And it does nothing about parents' calls for new technologies and nicer classrooms.

"At best, the bill changes a few words … It's window dressing," said Ron Gardner, president of the Utah chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. "It drives us nuts because for years we have been trying to draw attention to some of the failures and successes at this institution."

Rep. Sumsion appreciates Gardner's frustration, but doubts he can appease everyone.

The American Fork Republican took part in a two-year task force charged with improving USDB. The group was organized by the Utah Office of Education and included two parents who rarely agreed on the best course of action, said Sumsion. "I think the task force skirted some issues, because they are difficult issues. But this is a good first step."

Nevertheless, parents and advocates are lining up to oppose the bill and have taken their grievances to the governor.

USDB officials share concern about the bill's expansion of the definition of deaf and blind to include mild impairments such as "functional hearing loss" and "low vision."

"We're trying to expand enrollment and improve services, but these definitions are so generalized that almost anyone could enroll. We don't have the capacity or funding for that," said USDB spokeswoman Kimberley Smale.

USDB is a strange hybrid -- part school and part state agency, said Smale. It operates two schools, but most of its 2,200 students are educated in their neighborhood schools. For this reason, USDB is funded through one lump sum, instead of on a per-pupil basis.

Sumsion's bill carries a $610,000 fiscal note, not enough to cover a surge in enrollment, say school officials.

Some parents agree the definitions are too fuzzy, and fear they will do nothing to improve access.

Denise Colton wants to add "degenerative conditions" to the definition of blindness. The Park City mom has fought for years, and spent thousands of dollars on lawyers, to get training in Braille for her two daughters, whose progressive blindness gets worse with age. USDB disagreed with the Coltons over how much emphasis should be placed on the girls learning Braille when they can still read text.

The Coltons eventually prevailed, but not everyone has the money or know-how to navigate the system, said Gardner.

About 70 percent of blind people are unemployed, and research shows 90 percent of those who do have jobs use Braille, said Gardner.

The earlier it's learned, the better, he said, noting that fewer than 10 percent of Utah's visually impaired children read at grade level in Braille.

"We have teachers who work at the school who teach Braille to visually impaired children by sight, instead of by touch. When a child's eyes get worse, they tell parents to get a brighter light, said Gardner. "Others are taught Braille once a week, like piano lessons. If we taught reading to a sighted child that way, there'd be a hue and cry so loud."

Gardner, though, is less worried about definitions than the bill's designation of USDB as a "Local Educational Authority," something akin to a school district.

"That could be seen as a way of releasing local districts from the authority and responsibility of teaching these kids," he says. "We can't have that when federal law requires educating kids in the least restrictive setting."

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