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Deaf language learning law among those taking effect this year

Kids learning sign language.
David P. Fulmer
Kids learning sign language.

Michigan parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children will have new ways to track their child’s language learning progress under a new state law taking effect this spring.

The law creates a new advisory committee within the state Department of Education to come up with an assessment and other tools to check if deaf or hard-of-hearing children are acquiring language skills before they enter kindergarten.

Those assessments would use American Sign Language, English, or a combination of the two. Advocates worry that historically-used standards rely too heavily on oral English or a form of communicating that differs from ASL called Signing Exact English can cause children to fall behind.

The group Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids (LEAD-K) led the push for the legislation.

“Trying to have a child communicate in Signed Exact English, English word to English order, is basically like having a child communicate in two different languages. You wouldn’t try to have someone speak French but yet have them constantly trying to be listening in Spanish,” LEAD-K core committee member Millie Hursin said Tuesday.

She added there currently aren’t any assessments being done on deaf kids in ASL. She said the new law would require frequent screenings to notice if a deaf or hard-of-hearing child isn’t gaining language proficiency before they reach age 5.

The new law also gives parents the option of choosing whether to place their child in an English learning environment, and ASL one, or both.

Hursin said parents are often unaware of all the options available for their child’s education.

“They will be told sometimes, ‘Well you’re child is doing really well. Your child is really beginning to pick up their S sounds.’ Well, picking up your sounds or TH sounds does not give you language,” Hursin said.

She counted the resources available to parents among the most important parts of the new law.

Another part of the law Hursin highlighted was the data reporting required of the Michigan Department of Education.

“When parents see data and when the legislators see data, they’re going to expect to see change. And without that data, without having data and posting it and having it being accessible to everybody, change may never occur,” Hursin said.

At least 20 other states have passed some form of LEAD-K legislation.

The Michigan group has worked for years to get it passed before finally getting it across the finish line last month, with the help of former State Rep. Ben Frederick (R-Owosso).

“Families with young children who use American Sign Language to communicate will have more resources to track the progress of their language acquisition,” Frederick said in a press release after the bill’s signing.

Though the law takes effect in March, the assessment won’t go into use until the fall of 2025. Meanwhile, the advisory committee won’t officially form until January of 2025.

Hursin said that’s because of the time officials expect it will take to find 15 members of the diverse backgrounds prescribed in the law.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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