Advocates for deaf and hard of hearing children in Montana gathered outside the Capitol Thursday to mark the recent passage of a new state law aimed at improving language development among those youth.
The law — House Bill 619 — seeks to standardize how Montana tracks language acquisition among deaf and hard of hearing children through age 9, and enhance the state’s ability to collect data on how individual children are progressing. To accomplish those goals, HB 619 directs the Office of Public Instruction and Department of Public Health and Human Services to establish a temporary advisory committee of 10 to 15 parents and professionals tasked with setting specific milestones to gauge that progress.
As the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Missoula Rep. Connie Keogh told those gathered Thursday that HB 619 creates “a pathway for families with deaf and hard of hearing children from birth to age 9 on their road to success, both academically and socially.” Keogh also noted that HB 619 was co-sponsored by Bozeman Republican Rep. Jennifer Carlson and was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May after receiving strong bipartisan support in the 2023 Legislature.
Shawn Tulloch, a member of the Montana Association for the Deaf who advocated for the new law, also addressed the crowd on Thursday, describing HB 619 as a more detailed follow-up to a 2021 bill that established evaluation procedures for deaf or hard of hearing children below the age of 3, as well as annual reporting requirements for DPHHS. In an email response to Montana Free Press, Tulloch said the latest changes through HB 619 should help address one of the most significant challenges facing deaf and hard of hearing students: a lack of awareness, even among families, of those students’ needs and how to meet them.
“Statistics show that 90% of deaf children come from hearing families with no knowledge of sign language or awareness of deaf culture,” Tulloch told MTFP. “The parents often discovered that their own [deaf or hard of hearing] child is the first DHH person they ever met. They don’t know what is normal or where to get more information.”
According to Katie James, a Bozeman-based outreach consultant for the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind, language skills are a foundational aspect of preparing deaf and hard of hearing children for their early elementary school years. James conducts the types of child assessments addressed in HB 619, which, she told MTFP, require building a rapport with families and recognizing when a parent is struggling to understand their child’s diagnosis. Families could decide to pursue spoken English or American Sign Language as a child’s first language, James continued, or a combination of the two. She sees the milestones required under HB 619 as critical in identifying early on when a child is struggling and making the changes necessary to prepare them for a classroom setting, where the language used is often more academic and where they may be working through an interpreter.
“We have to do the best we can do to start early,” James said. “Birth to 5 [years old] is the key, key window because once they hit about 5 years old, neuroscience tells us that that critical [language acquisition] period closes. It doesn’t mean that kids beyond 5 years old can’t learn their first language, but there are forever impacts if they don’t have that foundation by 5. It impacts them in their social skills, their emotional skills, their ability to self-regulate.”
James added that the law will also give state agencies, educators, speech pathologists and others access to better data on learning among deaf and hard of hearing students through age 9, allowing them to identify broader trends in addition to the progress of individual students.
James and others involved in the crafting and passage of HB 619 noted that the bill is largely based on a national model developed by the grassroots Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids campaign. Montana is one of 20 states that has adopted such legislation setting kindergarten readiness standards for deaf and hard of hearing youth.
According to spokesperson Brian O’Leary, OPI has already named a member of its special education unit to a cross-agency team charged with implementing the new law. He added that that team is currently developing a process to identify members of HB 619’s new advisory committee with the intent of convening a first meeting by September. HB 619 calls for the committee to present recommended language acquisition milestones to OPI and DPHHS no later than June 1, 2024.
During Thursday’s event at the Capitol, DPHHS Early Childhood and Family Support Division Administrator Tracy Moseman said both agencies had recently applied for federal funding to “support the research, training [and] material development” of the advisory committee through next March.
For Tulloch, the bill’s passage marks a major accomplishment in meeting the learning needs of deaf and hard of hearing children. But, she told MTFP, Montana still lacks an adequate number of skilled professionals to meet those needs, and she hopes HB 619 will raise enough awareness to begin improving access to services for families throughout the state.
“I know of a few families with a DHH child [who] moved out of Montana because the services were not provided for the kid,” Tulloch said. “I know a few families with a DHH child struggling with the lack of services for their child and they are still here in Montana. I hate to see families leave our Treasure State.”
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Three intervenors joined the ongoing litigation over House Bill 562 this week, arguing that the currently blocked law is critical to their plans to open specialized choice schools in their communities.
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