How Vermont is working to centralize services for the deaf
The closing of a school for the deaf in Brattleboro five years ago has had a ripple effect on services for deaf people across Vermont.
The Austine School in Brattleboro closed due to declines in enrollment. Experts say the change was largely a result of mainstreaming or incorporating deaf or hard of hearing students into public schools where they would receive individual accommodations.
However, the school's closure forced the only coordinated system for the deaf community to dissolve, too, making it hard for families to find services.
Our Christina Guessferd learned how the state is addressing the issue.
"We go to school in New Hampshire and there isn't really a deaf population. So, when we come here, we meet a lot of new friends," Mady Randall said.
This summer marks 10th-grade twins Mady and Kiki Randall's third year at the Green Mountain Lions Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Mady is deaf but both sisters are nearly fluent in American Sign Language.
"We learn sign language more and we just get to use it. It's a lot of fun," Mady said.
"We have an ASL club at our school but not a lot of people know and it's hard to teach them," Kiki said.
But the Cabot-based camp has experienced a significant decline in enrollment over the last few years. In 2001, it partnered with the Austine School and would house close to 100 campers per summer. This year, there are only about 15 kids registered.
"When Austine closed, there was multiple deaf families that left Brattleboro to seek employment elsewhere, and so we lost all those deaf families," said Stanley Patch of the Green Mountain Lions Camp.
That correlation is echoed in a 2019 report of the Vermont Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Deaf/Blind Advisory Council. It notes the deaf community says families with children who are born deaf and want them to learn ASL are more likely to leave the state to find social connections and state services.
"And that ended access to ideological services, coordination services," Susan Kimmerly said.
Kimmerly founded the Nine East Network, which works with most Vermont schools to provide services to 423 students with hearing loss. She says without that single point of entry to the state's services, families don't know who to turn to for help. Kimmerly says many don't even know the camp exists.
"What is the benefit for them to be with other kids with hearing loss and/or with sign language? And I think the benefit is tremendous. I think there are opportunities to have a camp and that if we partnered with that organization, we might be able to help get more people," Kimmerly said.
Now, the state is reconciling that disconnect by hiring a director of Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf/Blind, who will oversee and organize all of Vermont's resources, including the Green Mountain Lions Camp and Nine East Network.
A welcome sign for kids like Mady and Kiki.