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Jordan McDonnell, a senior studying exercise physiology, listens to the world with the help of his hearing aid. He is one of almost 25 hearing-impaired students registered in OU's Office of Disability Services this year. (Katharine Egli | Picture Editor)

Hearing-impaired students lose opportunities

Jordan McDonnell was eight years old the first time he heard the sound of the birds singing outside his window.

No one ever suspected he was different until third grade, when his teacher at Groveport Elementary School in Columbus realized McDonnell could only hear her part of the time.

That year, his teacher encouraged McDonnell’s parents to get him a hearing aid, and for the first time, he understood what he was missing.

“If nobody tells you you’re different, you can’t really tell you are,” McDonnell said. “Nobody was there to tell me I should have been hearing better.”

McDonnell, now a senior studying exercise physiology at Ohio University, is one of almost 25 hearing-impaired students registered with the Ohio University Office of Disability Services this year.

His story might be similar to the experiences of some students dealing with hearing impairments in Southeastern Ohio, but there’s been no recent attempt to find out.

Starting in 1982, a special class was held for hard-of-hearing and deaf students from districts throughout Southeastern Ohio at East Elementary School, said Jeremy Yehl, Athens City School District director of special services.

However, in 2009, the class shut down when the last few students moved away, and since then, there has been no effort or outreach from parents to replace it, Yehl said.

“You have to have enough kids to make it worthwhile,” Yehl said. “At the end, we had four kids with a teacher and a (teacher’s) aide, which is nice for the kids but expensive for the district.”

When the class began, there was only one deaf student living in Athens, but it was easy to find six more hearing-impaired students throughout the region, said Patricia O’Brien, communication studies and disorders professor at OU and former teacher at the East Elementary School class.

The class was beneficial to the students because the teachers were trained specifically in deaf education and could provide the amount of oversight necessary for each student, Yehl said.

Although the class has not been re-opened, it doesn’t mean there aren’t deaf or hard-of-hearing students in the area, O’Brien said.

“I have not sent out a survey, but I would put money on it that there are one or two children in every district who would be considered hard-of-hearing,” O’Brien said. “They may have some speech and some comprehension of language, but that child is no doubt missing out on a lot of information and a lot of social interaction as a result.”

Yehl said that before, he was able to keep track of the number of students from different schools in the area because of the class, but now, he only oversees one student in the Athens City School District.

“I’m not sure if there are kids out there who aren’t in hearing-impaired programs and who may not be getting the highest level (of education) they could,” Yehl said.

Carey Busch, director of the Ohio University Disability Services, said interpreters are not easy to come by in the area, making it difficult to provide students with a wide scope of options.

The closest deaf and hard-of-hearing organizations are located in bigger cities such as Chillicothe and Zanesville, and the Ohio School for the Deaf is located in Columbus.

“There is no one that has come forward and said they want to help provide a service at the university, so we hire interpreters or captioning companies out of the Columbus area or Chillicothe,” Busch said. “There really aren’t a lot of qualified people in this area to provide those services.”

Without certain attention and qualified teachers, students can fall through the cracks, O’Brien said.

“In this part of the state, parents are struggling to meet their own basic needs day to day,” O’Brien said. “For them to know what their rights are, try to be assertive with professionals and fight on behalf of their child, very often that’s not going to happen.

“It really has to be the administration and the other people offering support services. … They need to be the ones fighting the fight.”

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