Is the future of Ontario’s deaf schooling in danger?

By Chantal Braganza - Published on March 31, 2016
Robarts School for the Deaf in London, Ontario
Robarts School for the Deaf in London, Ont., is one of five schools under review by the province.

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When Lalita Tamburri’s daughter, Jaya, was diagnosed with profound hearing loss just before her third birthday, Tamburri and her husband immediately enrolled in the province’s Infant Hearing Program to learn more about the medical and linguistic options available. Did Jaya qualify for a cochlear implant? Did her parents want her to learn American Sign Language (ASL)? What schooling could she get?

Last year, Jaya’s parents enrolled her in a school for deaf children, one of four operated by the Ministry of Education’s Provincial Schools Branch. The process took six months; first they had to register her for kindergarten at the local school board, indicate her profound hearing loss diagnosis and attend a series of meetings with the school board about the accessible classroom options available locally. Jaya started kindergarten at Robarts School for the Deaf in London in September, travelling by schoolbus an hour each way from her home in Woodstock.

In a few short months, Tamburri says, everything about the way she communicates with her daughter has changed. “Her language has just blossomed," she says. "Her ability to communicate has blossomed. How we use body language is changing in our house, how we use facial expressions. We do a lot of that in spoken language with intonation, but with manual language you do this with your body and your face.”

But six months into her daughter’s time at the school, Tamburri is concerned about the future of Robarts. In late February, she and the other parents of the school’s 65 students were invited to public consultations for a provincial review of their school and four others belonging to the Provincial Schools Branch that serve children with learning disabilities.

The branch has halted enrolment at all five schools. When specifically asked about the review during question period in early March, Education Minister Liz Sandals refused to rule out the possibility of closing the schools. The ministry cites low enrollment and limited quality as reasons for the review.

“Low enrolment in schools can limit the choice, diversity and availability of programs for students,” a ministry spokesperson said to TVO.org in an emailed statement. “We believe every student in Ontario deserves access to a high-quality education and supports they need to succeed, including our most vulnerable students.”

Alumni and parents of students at Ontario’s schools for the deaf don’t disagree with these statements outright. They argue, however, that these outcomes are due to outdated policies that have limited enrolment. “The government of Ontario has done nothing to increase enrolment,” says Donald Prong, executive director for the Ontario Association for the Deaf. “We’ve had such awesome centres of education in the PSB. If you look at francophone schools today they’re popular and there’s waitlists,” he says, comparing schools for the deaf to the province’s French immersion system. “They’ve become centres of excellence.”

The parents at all five schools subject to the review are pushing back. On Wednesday, a demonstration at Queen's Park in Toronto drew in families and supporters from across the province, including parents of students and alumni from Robarts.

Schools for deaf students have a long history in Ontario. The first, Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf, has operated since 1870 in Belleville. Particularly after the mid-1960s when a rubella epidemic caused a generational increase of children who were born deaf, classes in such schools were bigger.

“At the [E.C. Drury School for the Deaf] in Milton, I started in kindergarten. At that time there were eight classes per grade — 10 to 15 students per class, per grade,” Prong says. “We weren’t learning only from the classroom teachers, but from our peers … we would find leaders throughout our classroom community. We’d challenge each other and strive to be like our own peers.”

In 1985, as the ’60s spike levelled and student numbers began to drop, Prong says the province initiated a review similar to the one occurring today. “The Ontario government wanted to move the schools into the mainstream branch, but these aren’t ASL-enriched environments. So instead the province recommended that [deaf schools] partner up with demonstration schools; they could house students in the same building.”

The result is what the Provincial Schools Branch looks like today. Separate from the mainstream school board system, it operates a network of eight primary and secondary schools across Ontario: one serves students who are blind; another three are for deaf students; and four of them serve students with learning disabilities, including the francophone Centre Jules-Léger in Ottawa. Some of the schools offer residential programs Monday to Friday for students who live far away; others, like Jaya, are bussed in from other cities each day.

The learning and social environment these schools provide, say alumni and parents of students currently in schools for the deaf, is simply impossible to replicate in a mainstream school or the segregated class programs that exist in some school boards.

"The teachers signed, the senior management signed, the cook signed, the nurse signed. The other students all used ASL. So I never felt different. I never felt less-than, or inferior to. I was just a kid in school."

— Rose Etheridge, alumna of E. C. Drury School for the Deaf

Milton parent and E.C. Drury alumna Rose Etheridge, for example, spent half of her high school tenure in a mainstream school at Simcoe County District School Board, having been accepted into a two-year arts program there.

“It was really shocking for me because I had only ever been at a school for the deaf,” she says. “The teachers signed, the senior management signed, the cook signed, the nurse signed. The other students all used ASL. So I never felt different. I never felt less-than, or inferior to. I was just a kid in school.”

Her experience in the mainstream system was completely different. “The first two weeks I didn’t even have an interpreter with me. They weren’t prepared for me, really. When they finally got one, it was my lifeline— it was the only link I had to the world at school.”

So much of the school’s design was set up for students who hear, she says. Morning announcements were announced over a loudspeaker. Her interpreter was present only for classroom hours, so during lunch breaks and hall time in between classes she was cut off from communicating with other students and faculty. “My world narrowed dramatically in terms of access.” The friendships she made there, Etheridge says, were mostly superficial and conducted through passed notes. “I think my personality really changed after a few months. I became quiet, withdrawn.”

However, the academic environment in the provincial schools for the deaf has changed significantly since Etheridge and Prong were students, they say. “I love visiting schools for the deaf, but when I see them these days my heart is broken,” Prong says. “There’s two to three students in each grade. You’re lucky if there’s one sport to enroll in.”

In 2010, the Toronto Star reported on teens whose complaints about the quality of program offerings at E.C. Drury and Centre Jules- Léger prompted the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth to ask the Ministry for a review. Complaints included a lack of university-level courses for high school students, a lack of senior administrators fluent in ASL, and instances of teachers conducting classes in spoken language rather than sign language.

“We’re seeing fewer and fewer options for these children,” says Erika Stebbings, whose son attends Grade 3 at Sir James Whitney in Belleville, where she also attended as a child. “And all we hear is that we don’t have the money or the numbers for these extra programs.”

According to the Ministry of Education, enrolment at schools for the deaf in Ontario has declined by 34 per cent between 2004 and 2014, and by 47 and 67 per cent respectively at Robarts and Centre Jules-Léger, two of the schools under review.

“Part of the reason for declining enrolment in provincial schools may be driven in part by the increased capacity of school boards to serve these populations,” a ministry spokesperson told TVO.org via email. “However the consultation is intended to explore effective programs and services offered in provincial and demonstration schools and boards.”

Parents and advocates say part of the blame for low admissions lies with board policies and lack of promotion, but the current review doesn’t include those areas.

Until recently, Prong and Etheridge say, students with a decibel hearing loss of 55 or lower were not eligible for admission into the Provincial Schools Branch, ruling out those with mild to moderate hearing loss or unilateral deafness. Hearing students with deaf siblings or family are also not eligible for enrolment. The policies around decibel hearing loss, Prong says, were changed earlier this month in part because admissions criteria listed in Regulation 296 of the Education Act do not tie eligibility to specific decibel hearing loss.

“Another factor has been that the previous superintendents [of the Provincial Schools Branch] said they were not allowed to promote the schools, so home-visiting teachers, resource consultants, administration or staff and even senior management were not able to actively promote the schools or talk about them as an option,” Etheridge says. “How in the world do parents of deaf children learn about their existence if no one is promoting or talking about them?”

Answers to these questions are not easily obtained. When contacted about these policies, the Provincial Schools Branch directed questions to Ministry of Education representatives, who confirmed only that due to the Education Act, “unilateral deafness, hearing loss tied to specific decibels and having cochlear implants does not affect a child’s eligibility for admission to a provincial school for the deaf.” They did not respond to inquiries about past admissions practices and policies at the Provincial School Branch itself.  Regarding the promotion of schools, ministry spokesperson Derek Luk wrote in an email that “the Provincial Schools Branch makes detailed information available to school boards and parents about the admission of students to provincial schools and demonstration schools.”

The ministry also emphasized that no concrete decisions about the future of the schools have been made, and that its review process will conclude by the end of the spring.

“If the deaf schools close, our community will suffer,” Etheridge says. “Because our community can’t grow. How do deaf people meet each other, find role models to look up to and understand deaf theatre, deaf art? All of that is at risk.”

Image credit: Ontario Ministry of Education/cbc.ca

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