MAY. 31 2015, 9:43 PM 1 COMMENT

Austine School and the Vermont center for the deaf and hard of hearing.  Photo by Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer

The Austine School in Brattleboro. Photo by Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer

Along-existing Hearing Advisory Council will be renamed and repurposed to ensure that the State of Vermont is providing the services children and adults who are deaf or hard of hearing need through all stages of their lives.

Lawmakers began hearing concerns about services for the deaf community after the closure last year of the Austine School for the Deaf and the Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Brattleboro, Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, said.

“I started getting calls from parents saying ‘We have to make sure we get the services our kids need,’” since the Austine School in Brattleboro closed, said Pollina.

While it’s unlikely that Vermont will open a school for the deaf any time soon, Pollina said there may be a way to create programs for deaf children — perhaps hosted at one of the state’s colleges.

Pollina sponsored a bill that sought to establish a commission and a “bill of rights” for people who are deaf or hard of hearing this past session, S.66.

The Senate Government Operations Committee took testimony from people within the deaf community and advocates about the effect the closing of the Austine School and the center had on the deaf community in Vermont. The bill passed the Senate, but stalled in the House.

While the bill did not end up becoming law, there is a compromise being worked out now by the administration to expand an existing council into a body that would have members of the deaf community included.

The Shumlin administration is in the final stages of expanding the mission of the Hearing Advisory Council, according to Aly Richards, deputy chief of staff and director of intergovernmental affairs for the governor.

“We want to make sure that everyone is at the table and that services are continuing in an appropriate fashion,” Richards said.

Following the closure of the Austine School, the Agency of Education contracted with the Nine East Network educational company to provide school-based and parent/infant programs for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Susan Kimmerly, director of Nine East Network, said the closure of the state’s only school for deaf students is “the main lightning rod.”

“What we’ve tried to do this year is replicate what was provided, and at the same time, we’ve been reviewing our services so that we can address the issues that were brought up with S.66,” said Kimmerly.

Mary Essex, president of the Vermont Association of the Deaf, speaking through an interpreter on Friday, said when the Austine School and the center closed last year, many services, as well as jobs, for deaf and hard of hearing adults went away. “A lot of people in the deaf community got laid off,” she said.

There was a misunderstanding at the state level that the Austine School only served children, Essex said. The school also served as a center for services for Vermont’s deaf and hard of hearing community.

“They were all housed in the same spot,” said Essex. “It was not just a school program … It was everything.”

Essex said many groups in Vermont, from gays and lesbians to Native Americans, have representation at the state level. But deaf people, she said, are treated like second-class citizens. “Where is the deaf program? They don’t have any,” she said.

While the association is hopeful that a renamed council with expanded membership will address concerns in the short term, they still want to see S.66 advance through the House in the second year of the biennium, Essex said.

“They need to study these issues that are going on,” Essex said.

The administration’s plans to expand the council and appoint more members, Essex said, will be “a temporary stepping stone to try to get everybody on the same page.”

The deaf community is advocating for a cradle-to-grave program for people who are deaf and hard of hearing in Vermont. “We want to be first-class citizens,” and ensure access to services across all ages, she said.

Essex said parents of many deaf children have left Vermont since the Austine School closed, to ensure their children receive the best education possible.

Evelyn Dixon of Berlin, whose son, Paxton, 4, was born deaf, said Friday that concerns for parents are deep. She and her fiance, Zach Sherman, and their two sons, are moving to Maryland in a few months.

Dixon said Paxton has been receiving services since he was six months old, and has a one-on-one communication facilitator, who is deaf, as well.

Their family is relocating because Paxton has no opportunity to socialize with other deaf children.

“Vermont needs some sort of deaf program so that deaf children can interact with one another freely and not be isolated,” said Dixon. “We are moving this August so that he can attend a deaf school; it’s best for his education, we feel. We are moving to the Frederick, Maryland area — it’s considered one of the best schools for deaf children in the country.”

Dixon said, “There’s absolutely nothing in Vermont.”

The Hearing Advisory Council is being asked to report back to the Legislature by mid-January, with the following:

• An assessment of the education services and resources available;

• Any losses or reductions in services or resources due to the closure of the Austine School and the center;

• Any attempts to restore services;

• An assessment of the risks and benefits of mainstreaming;

• The feasibility of establishing a centralized school;

• Any recommendations for alternative methods of ensuring that children of the deaf community are not socially isolated and have adequate opportunities for direct contact with language or communication mode peers; and,

• A recommendation on whether the General Assembly should adopt a Bill of Rights specific to the deaf community.

Originally published on VTDigger: