July 16, 2020

More state aid sought for deaf children

PORTLAND — Mainers who work with deaf or hearing-impaired children say more state aid is needed to help those who choose to attend regular schools rather than the Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf.

More sign language interpreters and more specialists to help children adapt to hearing technologies are some of the resources being sought for public school classrooms where the majority of Maine’s hearing-impaired children get their educations.

More than 400 deaf or hard-of-hearing children attend regular schools in their communities instead of Baxter, Maine’s only school for the deaf. They constitute about 85 percent of the state’s population of hearing-impaired youngsters.

The state-run Baxter school serves about 60 students at its campus on Mackworth Island in Falmouth and has outreach programs to serve children who don’t attend.

But one family from Peaks Island says the programs offered through Baxter need expanding. The parents of 8-year-old Taylor Norton want him to wear a hearing aid and attend regular schools rather than use American Sign Language and attend Baxter.

But they say they had to take him to Massachusetts for four years to teach him to listen and speak with the hearing aid because Baxter didn’t offer the training.

“We would love support from an organization that is supposed to provide it,” said Kim Norton, Taylor’s mother.

But providing that help has become more difficult in recent years.

Lynn Schardel, who heads the outreach program at Baxter, said the program’s staffing levels never recovered from cuts of 25 percent to 30 percent inflicted during the state budget crisis 10 years ago, making it “next to impossible” to adequately meet the needs of Maine’s deaf students.

A bill that had all but final approval in the state Legislature would shift more money to outreach by limiting to 20 the number of students in the costly residential program at Baxter.

It calls for a two-year study of the needs of hearing-impaired youngsters and more satellite programs that would help deaf students who communicate orally, in addition to those who use American Sign Language.

“So many students seem to be underserved,” said Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee and a sponsor of the bill.

More of Maine’s deaf and hearing-impaired children are taking advantage of technological advances such as the cochlear implants that improve their hearing, but need help adapting to the technology, said Laurie Piasio of Scarborough, whose 5-year-old daughter has one of the implants.

Children need help making sense of the sounds, which differ from those picked up by the unaided ear, she said.

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