Navigating the Special Educational System

The Issue

The educational journey on which parents embark with their deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) child can be a straight, smooth path… or one that takes on twists and turns. Although Federal special education laws apply across the country, state regulations and implementation vary. State school system structures also vary at the local and regional levels. Schools for the deaf are governed differently, some with direct student placement while others have services and placement determined by IEP (Individualized Education Program) teams. Understanding the where, the why, and the how can be daunting.

What we know

We know that parents of DHH children encounter different educational routes from the birth of their children through post-secondary activities. These routes include: Early Hearing Detection and Intervention, special education services for children birth through age 2 (Individuals with Disabilities Act [IDEA] Part C), special education services for children 3-21 years (IDEA Part B), and Vocational Rehabilitation services.

Once a child is identified with a hearing level other than normal, parents may be referred to, or they can directly contact the IDEA Part C services in their state. IDEA Part C provides family-centered services as a result of a collaboratively developed Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) and assists families in promoting growth and development of their child up to age 3 years. Eligibility (as determined by the state) is required for these services. Once a child is 3 years of age, eligibility is again determined for services through an IEP. Transition planning should begin early during the high school years, and prior to graduation is the time for families to apply for and become familiar with their state’s services through Vocational Rehabilitation.

We do know that there is not one road for all DHH children to travel. The roads may vary due to a state’s eligibility requirements, communication differences, or additional disabilities. Desired services or placements may be limited due to geography.

What we do know is that, by law, all children receiving special education services are to be provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) that is designed for every child’s educational program to be “appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives” (see Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District).

And, we know that more often than not, hearing loss negatively impacts language acquisition and development. Nevertheless, the vast majority of DHH students can and should make one year’s academic/developmental progress in one year’s time.

What we don’t know

Nationally, we don’t know if DHH children in the United States are entering school with language skills commensurate with hearing peers. With a strong foundation of language firmly in place, children are ready for the academic rigors of school, as well as learning the associated social language that is prevalent and needed for appropriate social functioning (in and out of school). We also don’t know whether progress monitoring is occurring for all IEP goals. Is there open and transparent communication among all IEP team members, including parents? There should be no surprises at IEP meetings. Educational decisions are not (or should not be) agreements for lifetime commitments. Having challenging goals and monitoring the progress provides opportunity for immediate changes to keep the trajectory moving upward. Flexibility is imperative. Parents have the right to invite others to IEP meetings in order to provide them in the team with support or information that will assist in that regard.


Families should seek out as much information as possible in order to learn about the educational system in their state. Federally funded Parent Training and Information Centers are designed to help all families with children in special education. All IEP team members work together for the educational benefit of each student. It’s time we stop repeating the myth that DHH students graduate from high school at a fourth grade level. Let’s raise our expectations and goals. Let’s recognize the specific and explicit learning that may be necessary for a student who is deaf or hard of hearing. Let’s ensure that highly qualified educators and related service personnel are serving students. By working collaboratively, we can help families navigate the educational system and ultimately raise the achievement of DHH students.

Posted on April 2, 2018 by
Marsha Gunderson
Consultant, Iowa School for the Deaf
Mgunderson {at}


Further reading

Antia, S. (2015). Enhancing academic and social outcomes: Balancing individual, family, and school assets and risks for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in general education. In H. Knoors & M. Marschark (Eds.), Educating deaf learners: Creating a global evidence base (pp. 527-546). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details

Curle, D., Jamieson, J. , Buchanan, M., Poon, B.T., Zaidman-Zait, A., & Norman, N. (2016). The transition from early intervention to school for children who are deaf or hard of hearing: Administrator perspectives. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 22, 131-140. view details

Moeller, M. P., Carr, G., Seaver, L., Stredler-Brown, A., & Holzinger, D. (2013). Best practices in family-centered early intervention for children who are deaf or hard of hearing: An international consensus statement. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 429-445. view details

Yoshinaga-Itano, C. (2014). Principles and guidelines for early intervention after confirmation that a child is deaf or hard of hearing. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 19, 143-175. view details