In 2012 New Zealand’s two Deaf Education Centres (DECs) had their Board’s of Trustees replaced by a combined board of trustees with a significant increase in parental representation. There was much hope and excitement when Minister Hekia Parata made this announcement. The two DECs had been struggling for many years – as almost every deaf school in the world has.

Deaf schools internationally are a dying breed. With very few exceptions (like the St Joseph’s Institute for the Deaf in Indianapolis) they have failed to develop with the enormous shift in paediatric audiology, technology and habilitative best practice. Let’s look at these three major developments in a little more detail:

  • Paediatric Audiology – New Born Hearing Screening

New Born Hearing Screening now identifies the vast majority of children with pre-lingual hearing loss. In the past these children would tended not to be identified until they were 2-5 years old, by which time they would have experienced significant and in most cases irreversible language and developmental delay. Now with New Born Hearing Screening identifying children within months of birth, real early intervention is possible.

  • Technology – Digital Hearing Aids, Cochlear Implants, Conductive Aids and ABIs

Technology has changed massively. With modern audiological technology the sense of hearing is able to be effectively remediated or replaced in the vast majority of children. We see children who have been born with no hearing learning to listen and speak. But that is not all. They play musical instruments, sing, play soccer, swim, become doctors, police officers, teachers, radio hosts, aid workers in Africa – there are no limits to their potential.

  • Habilitative Best Practice

With early detection and restoration of hearing in the early months of a child’s life, the critical early development years are now available for these children to learn to listen and speak just as children with normal hearing do. Approaches like Auditory Verbal Therapy can now start very early and because of this can be very minimal. The language gap modern children born with no hearing now face is very small and requires shorter but intense and well timed bursts of habilitative input.

Deaf schools like New Zealand’s DECs have historically been focused on supporting children who had missed the critical language development window. They are schools and focused on school aged children. In fact the New Zealand DECs are restricted to working with those children 3 years old and above. This is a nonsense as the critical language development period is 6 months old to about 3 years old.

Deaf schools have long histories (van Asch DEC started in 1880 for example). They are use to seeing children who have missed critical language development windows and whose language and educational development has been compromised. They have a deep culture of accepting mediocrity and failure. This has created incredible institutional inertia against the change that is needed to work successfully with modern children with hearing loss. An example of this is the recent 2015 Combined Charter report from New Zealand’s two DECs. In this report the National Standard data for reading, writing and mathematics is presented for 2014.

  • Kelston DEC – Reading – 7.7% at or above National Standards
  • Kelston DEC – Writing – 20.5% at or above National Standards
  • Kelston DEC – Maths – 33.3% at or above National Standards
  • van Asch DEC – Reading – 12.5% at or above National Standards
  • van Asch DEC – Writing – 12.5% at or above National Standards
  • van Asch DEC – Maths – 12.5% at or above National Standards

These are appalling results and would be unacceptable in any other school. However this is typical of the dying deaf schools around the world – acceptance of mediocre outcomes for their students. This acceptance of mediocrity is dressed up with words like “realistic expectations”.

In Scotland, Education Scotland recently issued a notice to their equivalent of New Zealand’s DECs which requires an immediate improvement plan to be developed and implemented or the school will be closed. The culture of mediocrity has been too strong to institute the gradual change required to keep up with the developments mentioned previously. Now the ‘threat’ of forced closure is required to move the paradigm – and even that may not be enough to save this dinosaur. It should not have to be this way. Institutions like deaf schools should never have been allowed to get to a point where they are deemed to be doing more harm than good to the children they were established to serve.

New Zealand’s DECs have a lot of similarities to their Scottish brethren. For example, in Scotland the government had recently invested substantial capital on buildings and facilities. This was meant to facilitate a step change in the school. It didn’t work. In New Zealand the Kelston DEC is undertaking a $10m redevelopment of its campus. The charter report makes numerous mention of investment in information technology at both schools. Will this expenditure facilitate a step change in NZ’s DECs? Highly unlikely.

The reason why the Scottish DEC is failing, and why the New Zealand DECs are on the same path, is simply that they fail to meet the needs of modern children with hearing loss. They don’t meet these needs because:

  • Their staff are not suitably trained, experienced nor qualified
  • They put resources into the wrong age group
  • They fail to listen to, value and understand the aspirations of the vast majority of parents

Buildings and newer computers will not solve these bedrock issues. Instead deaf education schools should listen to parent’s aspirations for their children. They should re-train, and in many cases, re-staff to be able to meet what parents seek and what the children need. And they should shift their focus into early intervention. Failure to make any part of this step change will doom New Zealand’s DECs to the same path as the Scottish DEC.

Will New Zealand’s DECs be able to change? I doubt it.

In 2012 when Minister Hekia Parata announced the changes to the board of trustees, parents of children with hearing loss in New Zealand had high hopes that we might see the step changes needed. Instead we have seen two and a half years of grinding inertia from “realistic expectations” and mediocrity bludgeoning this hope.

2ears2hear has long advocated for removing deaf education funding from all institutions – including the DECs and the Ministry of Education’s Special Education Group – and providing it to parents of children with hearing loss to choose to spend it through certified providers that meet their aspirations and goals for their child. We now renew this call to Minister Parata.

SymAbout the author: Sym Gardiner has a eight year old daughter who has profound bilateral hearing loss. She was simultaneously implanted just before she turned two years old. Sym is the editor of 2ears2hear. He has been active in promoting the availability of bilateral implants for children in New Zealand. He is a contributor to the Cochlear Implant kids community in the Wellington region and the national Cochlear Implant community. 

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