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Coalition Seeks A State Commission For The Deaf And Hard-of-Hearing

John Dillon
Austine graduates and their supporters rallied recently in Montpelier.

A coalition of  deaf and hard-of-hearing Vermonters and their allies wants the legislature to create a state Commission on the Deaf. The group is also calling for the state to reopen the recently closed Austine School for the Deaf as a state school. And they want deaf people to have a say in replacing services that ended when Austine’s parent group dissolved in September.

A week after a major rally in Montpelier, Austine alumni gathered on the school’s Brattleboro campus to plan their next move. The group formed last spring, in an effort to save Austine School, which closed in June because of financial problems. But their agenda broadened after the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Austine’s parent organization, also shut down. The center coordinated important services and programs for hearing-impaired Vermonters.

Mary Essex is an Austine graduate and the president of the Vermont Association of the Deaf. She addressed the Austine group in American Sign Language. She spoke with VPR through an interpreter.

"Traditionally the Vermont Center and Austine School have been the place to contact for information," Essex said. "And now there is nothing. We want our deaf voters to ask their legislators to pass a law in Vermont to establish an agency or Commission for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing in the state system -- and also to pass a law that a public school for deaf children will be formed in Vermont.”

"We want our deaf voters to ask their legislators to pass a law in Vermont to establish an agency or Commission for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing in the state system, and to pass a law that a public school for deaf children will be formed in Vermont." - Mary Essex, Austine alumna and president of the Vermont Association of the Deaf

Essex says a state commission could coordinate services that ended when the Vermont Center closed. Those include programs for deaf infants and their parents, interpreter referral services, services for deaf adults.

The center also ran an outreach service that worked with hearing-impaired children in public schools around the state. The Vermont Agency of Education, which funds the program, has hired a Burlington based nonprofit, Nine East, to continue that service. Essex charges that the state rushed into the contract without including deaf people in the process.

Members of the Save Austine group say mainstreaming isn’t always the best answer for deaf and hard of hearing children. They say many feel isolated in public schools, that they miss key academic concepts and the social interaction that occurs when sign language is the shared means of communication.

Washington County Senator Anthony Pollina is one of a handful of legislators working on bills addressing the deaf community’s concerns. He says he’s heard from parents of deaf children.

"A lot of them want to have their kids be in a school with other deaf children, which I think for some people is kind of counter-intuitive," Pollina says. "A lot of times when we talk about children with special needs, we talk about the desire to mainstream them and keep them out of institutions. But a lot of the parents are making the argument that their children need to be in a learning environment that works for them, and that they feel that’s difficult for that to happen in the public schools."

Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding says the popularity of mainstreaming and Vermont’s finances make it unlikely that the state will resurrect Austine or open a new school for the deaf. But he says improving deaf services and education is a conversation worth having, and one that's beginning to take place.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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