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May 11, 2004

Program for deaf to shut doors

From: Albany Times Union, NY - May 11, 2004

Scotia -- Increased use of cochlear implants among hearing-impaired has led to drop in enrollment

By RICK KARLIN, Staff writer
First published: Tuesday, May 11, 2004

An early childhood program for the deaf plans to close its doors this year, the victim in part of medical advances that have apparently left it with too few students.

But parents of the handful of kids remaining at the Preschool for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which dates some two and a half decades, claim it doesn't have to be the end.

"We were told there would not be another classroom unless they could come up with six to eight children," said Michele Swain of Scotia, who has a 3-year-old son in the program, which is located at Altamont Elementary School.

"We're at a loss, my wife and I," added Greg Blick, also of Scotia, who has two children in the preschool.

Officials at the Capital Region BOCES, which runs the preschool, say there simply aren't enough youngsters to make it workable anymore.

"We just can't run a program for two kids," said Inge Jacobs, director of special education services for BOCES. "If the enrollment blossomed again, we would reopen it."

The number of children at the preschool program has fallen from 18 last year to eight this year, with just two children signed up for next September. Jacobs believes the growing use of cochlear implants, which can provide partial hearing to the deaf, is diminishing demand for such special services.

That's a trend being repeated nationwide. According to research from Johns Hopkins University, students who get the implants are "mainstreamed," or integrated into regular classrooms, at three to four times the rate of deaf children without the devices.

However, advocates such as the National Association for the Deaf have said they are worried that implants may be viewed as a cure-all that eliminates the need for other services. Blick, too, said implants are not a panacea and can inhibit activities such as running and swimming.

Further, not all deaf people believe they need to undergo surgery to fix the condition. "Deaf people don't think there is anything wrong with being deaf," Blick said.

As for the declining preschool numbers, Blick noted BOCES last year stopped accepting the youngest kids, from nine months to three years of age. And that could diminish what he termed the "feeder" system for older kids.

"They haven't allowed any other early interventions," said Swain, referring to program for 9 month-olds to 3-year-olds.

Both parents realize there are other sources of help, including special education programs for kids as they go through the K-12 system.

But Blick credits the early intervention in the success that another one of his daughters, Sara, has had over the years.

Now 12, Sara gets As and Bs, is almost fully integrated into regular classes and performs with the Northeast Ballet Company, he said.

"My oldest daughter has done very well," said Blick, explaining that the BOCES program helped the girl use her voice and develop language skills at a very early age, despite her inability to hear.

Such assistance is important, Blick added, because of the dynamic that takes place when deaf children are born to hearing parents, which accounts for his and 90 percent of the cases.

For a hearing child, socialization and the ability to speak start right after birth as infants hear their parents' voices. With deaf children, professionals can fill that gap, said Blick.

"We owe this to the kids. It shouldn't just be starved and dropped," he said.

copyright 1996-2004, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.