Deaf and hard-of-hearing students take lead in equal access advocacy

This article was submitted by Amy Andersen, 2017-18 teacher of the year

“Today is a day that can never be taken back. Today is the day when others will see my disability as a culture. My name is Kierstyn Keuhlne. I am 15 years old and I am a part of the Deaf community and culture.”

Kierstyn, a freshman at Ocean City High School is a new ASL 1 student this year, and although I have only known her for two short months, she repeatedly surprises me with her maturity, leadership and conviction. Oct. 18 was no different. As she began her testimony, there it was—the tightening in my throat and welling in my eyes. I was overcome with emotion, sitting with my Deaf and hearing colleagues, friends and students in the New Jersey State House. We were all there to give testimony before the Assembly Education Committee in support of two bills that are currently moving through the New Jersey Legislature: A-1896, or the Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights and A-1893, or LEAD-K: Language Acquisition Equality for Deaf Babies.

Kierstyn was born Deaf in one ear but just recently discovered American Sign Language and the existence of a Deaf Community. Her family was never given any information about how to find Deaf mentors or learn about ASL when Kierstyn was growing up. When she found out four years ago that she was swiftly losing hearing in her other ear, she began to seek both out for herself. This led to her involvement with the Hearing Loss Association of America. Through her advocacy and fundraising, Kierstyn has raised over $90,000 over the past three years to advance education about being Deaf and hard of hearing and provide hearing aids to families who cannot afford them. Kiki, as her friends call her, convinced her family to move to Cape May County so she could attend OCHS and join the ASL program. But as an 11-year-old, she had to seek out and make these connections herself.

Both bills will enable New Jersey’s early intervention and education system to expand the information and opportunities that new families with Deaf children receive so that children like Kierstyn and her family will not have to find it themselves. The bills will also guarantee that a Deaf child’s educational placement is based not on proximity to home district, but the best possible environment for that child. The decision will take into account social/emotional opportunities, the right to direct instruction in the child’s native language, highly qualified educational interpreters, teachers of the Deaf and the inclusion of Deaf adult role models and mentors.

The right to an equitable educational placement is why two Deaf elementary students were next to sit in those big chairs, with the microphones pulled down far as they could go. Maria Maione, 12, and her brother Francesco, 10, looked into the eyes of 14 members of the New Jersey General Assembly. When Francesco spoke, Maria signed in ASL and then they switched with Francesco signing and Maria speaking.

I’ve learned that as part of NJEA what all New Jersey teachers and educational support professionals really have is an extended family, one that unites us in our commitment to every child, every voice and every battle for equity.

“Please hear us,” they said. “Please understand what it is like being a Deaf child growing up in a hearing world. We deserve to have a say in our education.”

For the next hour, Deaf adults and hearing allies stood up and shared their personal experiences, emphasizing the need for both bills. At some point, I was able to regain my composure and speak as the 2018 NJ Teacher of the Year, using my voice to elevate what I believe is fair and just for every single child, regardless of race, ethnicity, language, country of origin or communication mode.

I knew that the impact of watching a collaborative group of colleagues, both Deaf and Hearing, working together toward a common goal of equity, social justice, and the human right to communicate is an experience I could never replicate inside my high school classroom, so, I invited the officers of this year’s ASL Club and three hard of hearing students from my ASL classes to come along and watch advocacy in action. They sat in the audience of that assembly hearing with Michelle Cline, treasurer of the National Association of the Deaf; Khanh Lao, the president of the N.J. Association of the Deaf; Christopher Sullivan, chair of L.E.E.D Leadership and Excellence in Education of the Deaf; and passionate Deaf adults from various countries of origin who discovered the incredible value of a shared language, ASL and shared community, Deaf Culture, but often not until they were teenagers or adults.

In the middle of all of this excitement, or perhaps at the heart, was NJEA, with unconditional support—a support I experienced repeatedly over the past year. The strongest educators union in the country was right there advocating for ALL kids and supporting educators in their efforts to guarantee what is best for all children. You see, without me even asking or honestly even knowing, NJEA drafted a letter of support for both bills and shared it with the Assembly Education Committee prior to this hearing. Francine Pfeffer, associate director of Government Relations for NJEA, became my immediate ally and adviser helping me to navigate a system I had very little experience with. That sense of family, that sense of home I describe after each NJEA event returned again as I spoke to Fran. I shared her letter with our Deaf community who were instantly overwhelmed by this gesture from NJEA.

I am happy to report that both bills, A-1896 and A-1893, passed with a unanimous vote from the Assembly Education Committee. Last June, the Senate equivalent of both bills, S-2044 and S-2045, also passed with a unanimous vote. The Deaf Child Bill of Rights and the Language Equality and Accessibility Bill will now both advance to the Senate Appropriations and Assembly Appropriations committees before heading to the full Senate and full Assembly for a vote. If both pass, they go to Gov. Phil Murphy to be signed into law.

We aren’t there yet, but we are closer today than we were yesterday, and our group of supporters, allies and advocates has grown as well. I am not alone in my gratitude to Assemblyman Daniel Benson for his sponsorship and extensive support of this legislation. Thank you to every member of the state Senate and Assembly Education Committees for hearing us.

Thank you, NJEA, for being so much more than a union. I’ve learned that as part of NJEA what all New Jersey teachers and educational support professionals really have is an extended family, one that unites us in our commitment to every child, every voice and every battle for equity. A crusade that moves us closer to a time when all children have the educational opportunities they need to succeed, not as a version of anyone else, but as themselves.

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