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‘They are hurting him’: Newfoundland family fights for education equality

A husband and wife in suburban St. John’s, Nfld., say they won’t back down in their demands the school system give an equal education to their son, who is Deaf.

Eight-year-old Carter Churchill is in a Grade 3 classroom with hearing classmates. His parents have filed a complaint under the province’s Human Rights Act, claiming Carter has been denied the equal education Newfoundland families are promised, starting in kindergarten.

Todd Churchill says his son has fallen behind.

“He only saw a Deaf itinerant teacher one-and-a-half to two hours every seven school days. So for the vast majority of his time, he was with a teacher who knew zero sign language.”

Kindergarten class learns to sign ‘Happy Birthday’ for hearing impaired custodian
Kindergarten class learns to sign ‘Happy Birthday’ for hearing impaired custodian

When the provincial government closed the school for the deaf in 2010, it promised parents that the needs of children like Carter would be met in mainstream classrooms.

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Holding back tears, Carter’s mother Kim says the reality is different.

“They’re taking my child and they are hurting him.”

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“They’re harming him in this process under the umbrella of education, which is just not happening.”

Educators believe electronic devices called cochlear implants minimize the need for sign language instruction, because they partially restore hearing. Carter has the implants, but, Kim Churchill says they, alone, are not the answer, because the processed sound is often distorted.

With his mother providing sign language to translate, Carter told Global News he is sometimes overwhelmed by several sources of noise at the same time, in his classroom.

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Christopher Sutton, National Executive Director of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, says Carter’s case is not unusual.

“As the Schools for the Deaf have closed across the country, and we only have a handful of them now, students that are using a sign language, that are put into a mainstream classroom with their peers, are not getting language instruction, are not getting educated in their first language, which is a sign language.”

To say the Churchill’s are concerned for the well-being of their son is an understatement. They have installed an elevator in their home, in the community of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, at their own expense, to make Carter comfortable. Kim has learned sign language, and provides Deaf awareness classes, for free. But, after negotiating with school officials for more education supports, they did something they never thought would be necessary — filing their human rights challenge.

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Saying their fight is not only for Carter but for other Deaf students as well, the Churchills set up a GoFundMe campaign, on which Todd says filing the complaint was not a decision they entered into lightly.

“After 4 failed attempts at a mediated settlement with EECD and NLESD over the past 2 years to protect Carter’s right to an equitable education to that of hearing children, we feel that we have been forced to elevate our complaint to a formal human rights hearing,” the campaign states.

“For us, the choice was simple.  We fight for our son and others like him.  While he may be no more than a student number to the people entrusted with educating our children, he is very much more important than that.  He is important.  His future is important.”

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The empassioned father goes on to point out that he only wants what any parent would want for their kids.

“Would any parent of a hearing child be satisfied if their child only received 1.5 – 2 hrs of quality instruction every 7 school days?  Of course not, but what is deemed unacceptable for a hearing child is the norm for a Deaf one.”

“Inclusion is simply more than just having your doors open up to invite people in” says Kim Churchill.

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“You have to be ready and prepared. You have to have the resources available.”

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You have to put the money into that and be able to back it up to make sure that these children are truly being involved.”

In a statement, the Department of Education says enhancing support for the deaf and hard of hearing is a priority, referring to “… a review that is already underway to determine how services can be better delivered, and, the resources that are required.”

The Churchill’s note teachers who’ve worked with Carter are doing their best. There just don’t seem to be enough of them to educate him properly. Todd Churchill fears Carter’s prospects for a successful future are being diminished.

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“People will look at these people, and say, ‘they’re Deaf. That’s that’s why they failed, because they’re Deaf.'”

They expect their human rights battle to continue for another 2 or 3 years, hoping the outcome leads to fairness.

As of the time of this writing, the online fund-raiser aiming to off-set legal expenses had exceeded $10,000.