Language development milestone bill hits resistance

A bill designed to help young children who are deaf and hard of hearing reach milestones in American Sign Language and English literacy met with both support and resistance Wednesday.

The Missouri House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education heard HB 106, sponsored by Rep. Jerome Barnes, D-Raytown. The bill would require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop milestones for children who are deaf or hard of hearing between the ages of birth and 5 years old in American Sign Language and English literacy. It also provides for assessments for those children and creates an advisory committee of 16 members to develop the milestones.

Barnes' daughter lost her hearing due to meningitis at a young age, and Barnes said his family struggled with where to turn.

"We had a whole new life that we had to start with that when they said she lost her hearing," he said.

Many educators, members of the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and people who are deaf or hard of hearing testified in favor of the bill.

But many were opposed as well.

Betsy Moog Brooks of the Moog Center for Deaf Education spoke in opposition, calling the legislation a duplication of existing processes. Language milestones and standardized assessments for children who are deaf and hard of hearing already exist and are widely used in the state, she said.

The true need is access to qualified professionals, including more teachers of spoken language and ASL and speech language pathologists.

Molly O'Hara of Kansas City agreed, citing the existing Families First program, which, according to its website, "provides home-based early intervention services" for families of children who are deaf or hard of hearing from birth to age 8. Families are paired with an adviser who meets with them weekly and educates them on hearing loss, language development, communication and assistive technology.

O'Hara also questioned the need for a 16-person advisory board.

O'Hara advocated improving the existing system rather than making something new.

"It is my hope that the committee will come to a conclusion that House Bill 106 does not offer any new solutions. Instead we need to improve what we already have," O'Hara said through an interpreter.

Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, asked opponents of the law what they wanted to see in legislation.

"I hear people saying I need, we need this, and I hear you saying we don't need this... Is there anything that you think is good in this bill? Is there anything that you think needs to be added to this bill?" he said.

Heather Grantham of the Central Institute for the Deaf answered that she sees HB 106 as redundant and noted that it was not funded.

"I would prefer legislation that empowered universities and credentialing and loans and grant funding so that people could become teachers of the deaf. Right now, we have a dearth, a lack, of teachers who can work with children either in ASL or spoken language," she said.

But Becky Davis of the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing pushed back on those objections.

Even with the existing system, there are issues, Davis said. HB 106 would provide oversight and assessments with "visible results" in whatever language suits the child's needs.

Davis said that although some questioned why a 16-member committee was needed in the bill, she sees it as a plus.

"The reason for this is because deaf individuals are not always brought to the table to have this discussion with the stakeholders," Davis said through a sign language interpreter.

William Walker, former president of the Missouri Association of the Deaf, said through an interpreter that one unique aspect proposed in the bill is that it specifically targets ASL assessment and milestones for children from birth to 5 instead of just reading, writing and spoken language.

Lewis said he thought overlap of programs might not be a bad thing, since it is vital to reach children as soon as possible.

Many people were excited about the inclusion of ASL in the bill.

Sonya Smith of the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing testified she lost her hearing as a child and was the only deaf person in her family. She got a cochlear implant and could read but also later found out about ASL and loved it.

"So I think that that's the point of (this program) is to show, when deaf children are born, they should have the opportunity to learn ASL, (rather) than just English all the way... It's almost like we're trying to control deaf children to force them to speak, and we don't need to force them, we need to have them have the opportunity to learn sign language and pick up that language," Smith said via a sign language interpreter.

The committee also had a slate of other controversial bills to hear Wednesday, including a bill that would prohibit instruction relating to sexual orientation or gender identity, which took several hours.