Mom says school officials discouraged son’s use of sign language

Problem rectified late Friday after the issue was brought to the media

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on September 29, 2012
Jarod Blake.

The mother of a Beachy Cove Elementary student who uses American sign language says education officials pushed her son to instead use an electronic device she feels won’t help him improve his speech skills.

“Why would you take away from a child with special needs, like Jarod, something that is so important and would enrich his education? By taking away (sign language) from my son it seems (Eastern School District) is going backwards instead of forwards with my child,” Fawn Hedderson said in an impassioned email to school board officials and a number of politicians.

But late Friday, Hedderson called The Telegram to say the decision had been reversed and credited The Telegram for that. Her son, Jarod Blake, 10, now has his schedule restored with staff who have sign language.

Jarod is in Grade 5 at the Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s school. He has Down syndrome and while he can hear, he has speech difficulties.

Hedderson told The Telegram that she was informed by a school board official that sign language will eventually be a thing of the past.

“This year they have decided to start taking sign language away from him,” she said earlier Friday.

She said the school acquired the device last year, but this fall it told her it was reducing his time with staff who have sign language skills to just a total of two hours in a seven-day school period. She said the school switched him away from a special needs teacher who has sign language skills to one who doesn’t.

Hedderson was informed by email Friday that his schedule would be changed to give him access to staff with sign language.

She has no problem with Jarod using the electronic technology, but opposes sole reliance on it.

Through the use of sign language, he is improving his verbal skills as his family works to encourage him to make sounds.

The electronic device has Jarod pushing buttons which announce requests like “I want to use the washroom.”

Hedderson said it won’t help him develop his own speech patterns.

“Why is it he can’t have sign language if it is already there in school? Our argument is he is so comfortable with (sign language). He’s used to it, so why not go both ways? … I don’t want him dependent on technology,” Hedderson said.

While the school is saying Jarod needs to get used to change, Hedderson said there is plenty of change in his life.

“They said they are the professionals who knows what is best for him. Well, I am his mother and I know what is best for him,” Hedderson said.

Inclusion, she said, is supposed to keep all options open for children, but yet the system was shutting down sign language for Jarod prior to reversing the schedule restrictions.

Eastern School District can’t discuss specific cases.

But a spokesman said it’s not abandoning support of American sign language.

The board said speech language pathologists provide assessments and recommendations for students with communication difficulties.

Trying to reach the best strategy is a “ongoing problem-solving process,” the spokesman said. This includes regular meetings to review a student’s progress and revamp the strategy based on what works and what doesn’t.

St. John’s North MHA Dale Kirby, the NDP critic for education as well as critic for the status of people with disabilities, said he doesn’t blame the school.

Rather he said, while the provincial government has embraced the inclusion of children with various special needs in the classroom, it hasn’t backed it up with resources.

“You can include people in the classroom all you want, but until students get the services they need to learn, the rest of it is really just rhetoric, however well meaning it may be,” Kirby said.

He said one of the top three things he hears regularly is the lack of supports for students with special needs.

“It’s one of the biggest problems we face in education in Newfoundland and Labrador today,” he said.

“This is the case that is getting attention now. There are many, many more parents who are similarly frustrated.”

Kirby said the province has failed to adopt a 2007 recommendation by an expert to provide mediation, which would likely have eased Hedderson’s struggle with the system from the beginning.

bsweet@thetelegram.com