Report says changes needed to protect rights of deaf students in N.L. schools

The Newfoundland flag blows in the wind in Ferryland, NL, August 8, 2013.
The Newfoundland flag blows in the wind in Ferryland, NL, August 8, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

An independent report says systemic changes are needed to ensure that the rights of deaf children are met in Newfoundland and Labrador’s education system, a decade after the province permanently closed its school for the deaf.

Provincial child and youth advocate Jackie Lake Kavanagh published her report last week after seeking feedback from parents, children and other stakeholders last fall.

She detailed common themes from 45 interviews, including accounts of inconsistent educational support and a need for teachers and other educators fluent in American Sign Language.

“We repeatedly heard about periods of time when deaf and hard of hearing children had no direct educational supports, because they were unavailable, not approved, awaiting approval, or had to be reassigned to another classroom or school,” the report read.

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Some children reportedly received instruction from a teacher for the deaf for two hours each day, while others only received such lessons every three days.

For rural students, itinerant teachers were sometimes located hours away and only provided lessons every five to six weeks. Some parents reported sending their children out of the province to access appropriate education services.

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There were also concerns raised about poor lighting in classrooms, making lip reading difficult, as well as concerns about social isolation from peers and safety issues. Deaf children would not hear a fire alarm, for example, and could be left isolated and unaware of an ongoing emergency.

One father who has been fighting to ensure his son’s educational rights said the report offers some vindication after years of being told educational supports are adequate.

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“This is an independent third party saying basically the same things we’ve been saying for years,” Todd Churchill of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, N.L., said in a telephone interview.

“It’s gratifying to see that it’s now been formally captured in a report.”

Churchill’s son Carter, who will enter Grade 4 in the fall, has started each school year without a guarantee that his teacher will have a high fluency in American Sign Language.

The Churchills fear their son is missing out on quality education, and that will hold him back later in life. These concerns have been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with very little communication from his homeroom teacher.

Churchill said the uncertainty all parents are feeling about the quality of their children’s education while away from school during the pandemic – including anxiety about social isolation and lack of resources – are everyday concerns for his family.

“The frustration you have because of COVID-19 is the frustration parents of deaf children have all the time,” Churchill said.

Lake Kavanagh detailed children’s educational rights as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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She also wrote on the need for children to develop language skills “in order to be full participants in their education and to grow academically, emotionally, and socially.”

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The provincial government closed its school for the deaf in 2010, with the province’s then-education minister saying no new students had enrolled. Since then, Lake Kavanagh wrote, the provincial government has not lived up to its promise that deaf students would continue to receive quality education.

“In all good conscience, I cannot give a passing grade on this commitment,” she wrote.

The provincial Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said the “excellent information” in Lake Kavanagh’s report will help inform an ongoing review of supports for deaf and hard of hearing students.

“Addressing issues for deaf and hard of hearing students is a priority for the department,” its statement said. “We appreciate and understand the gaps and frustrations for families, and these will be addressed.”

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The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said in a statement that it is working with provincial officials to review how services for deaf and hard of hearing students can be better delivered.

The school district pointed to a steering committee struck last year to review resources for deaf children.

Todd Churchill and his wife Kimberly have sought a place on the committee. They say families of deaf children need to be heard, a position echoed in Lake Kavanagh’s report.

“There is untapped knowledge in the experiences of parents, professionals (including retired professionals) and very importantly: young people,” she wrote. “These perspectives are important in developing a plan to make things better.”

The Churchills are also seeking a human rights hearing on the grounds that Carter is not receiving the same quality of education as his peers, but they’re concerned that the process could drag on until Carter is in high school, missing a crucial window in his education.

The family has set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to support their anticipated legal fees. Todd Churchill said he’ll continue fighting no matter the cost because a precedent-setting decision could make a difference for other children like Carter.

“Ultimately, we are going to do it, even if I have to mortgage my home,” he said. “If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2020.

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