Friday, February 08, 2008

Assessing special needs: isn't there a better way?

This is the threatened follow up to yesterday's post, but this one is more directly related to learning, you will be pleased to discover.

Once again, this is not hypothetical.

Once upon a time, there was a baby girl who, at the age of 10 months, was still not able to sit up on her own. Her parents were referred to specialists in Cape Town, where she was assessed for cerebral palsy. The tests came back negative, and it was decided that she was simply atonic (which certainly seems to be the case - today she is somewhat clumsy and inelegant, but not attention-grabbingly so). While she was undergoing tests, she developed an ear infection - something to which she was prone. Later evaluations would indicate that it was likely that the medication she was given for this infection caused her to go deaf, since (a) it was contra-indicated for a child with grommets and (b) she had responded normally to sound stimuli before that time.

The audiologist duly assigned to her case was adamant that she should not be taught sign language. He argued that her poor co-ordination was inadequate to the task and, furthermore, that this avenue would restrict her communication to only those who knew sign language. Since there was no school which taught the approach known as "total communication" in her home town, the child was packed off to boarding school at a specialist school for the deaf 1100kms/700 miles away at the age of 4. This experience was traumatic for the entire family, and she did not progress at all well. After all, what child can learn effectively if she is miserable? Her communication skills did not improve a great deal, so instead of being cut off from hearing people, she was cut off from everyone.

At the age of 7, she was given a cochlear implant. The school felt that this move put her outside of the closely defined demographic they chose to address. She was duly sent back home. Sadly, having spent her formative years in a silent world, she decided that sound was a dreadful thing, and very quickly learnt to turn off the receiver. This meant that the reality of her situation was no different than before, but her eligibility for specialist schools had changed because of the mere presence of the implant - none of the schools were qualified to deal with a situation such as hers, and she was shunted from pillar to post.

It was in selecting a school for her to attend at this stage that her parents found themselves dealing with the inadequacies of tests designed to assess a child's mental capacity and potential. None of the assessments available could be applied. Because of her poor reading age, it was decided that she was very probably dyslexic (I have since learnt that deaf people often have poor reading skills). It was further decided that she had learning difficulties of indeterminate nature. Helpful. She was placed in a specialist school for children lacking in the intellectual capacity to cope with the rigours of the standard curriculum.

Having now left school, she is not qualified to do anything very much and runs the risk of losing her (pitiful) disablity grant, should she ever land a job. Of course, it's too late to change things, but I have often wondered what might have been done.

One thing I noticed, when watching her at play with other deaf children (disclosure: this girl is my niece) is that deaf kids are rough... I mean really physical. For those who work with them routinely, this is par for the course, but imagine a teacher trying to deal with this level of roughness in a mainstream school, where hearing children are not likely to put up with being pushed and pulled, hugged and thumped. Also, when a small deaf child wants something, she takes it. She is not intuned to the idea of manners or asking for something - nor do the wails of dismay from the "victim" alert her to the fact that she has caused any unhappiness. I can't see any mainstream teacher being able to handle this, while trying to teach the curriculum to all 30 children in the class.

Will we ever know what her true potential is? She never acquired the literacy skills to complete a written assessment of her mental capacity, and she doesn't possess the communication skills to complete the verbal tests that are sometimes used as an alternative. How might she have been tested to see if she is, in fact, as intellectually handicapped as has been assumed?

I was very glad when the misery of boarding school was brought to an end, even though this threw her future education into a limbo from which it never recovered. During the time she was a boarder, she used to come to my home for a weekend every month, where it became apparent that the little things that parents do for their small children as a matter of course (I'll spare you the details) were simply going undone, and she spent the entire weekend sitting listlessly on the couch with tears rolling down her face - unable to tell me why she was so unhappy. Sadly, I think that she assumed she was being taken home whenever I came to collect her, which might have had something to do with it.

I apologise for the heartrending sadness of this story, but I wonder if you can suggest what might have been done differently.

1 comment:

Rina Tripathi said...

much similar to what I had posted a week ago on learning disability. I had same reactions to sending a child away to a boarding school. Sensitive post. I have just started as an Instructional Designer and your posts are very informative. Just six months into this and I am enjoying. Thanks for sharing. I roam the web and see wonderful people!