Cochlear Implants and New Methodologies

We are pleased to announce a favorable decision in Flossmoor School District 161, the full text of which may be found at 38 IDELR 50 (SEA IL. 2002). We believe this is a very important decision for all children with disabilities, but especially for those with hearing impairments. This case involved a three-year-old boy who, after being born profoundly deaf, had been fitted with a cochlear implant. The dispute at issue at hearing was whether the child required a structured “oral approach” to his education or whether a “total-communication approach” was sufficient to confer educational benefit. The case is unique because in past litigation, school districts have prevailed in the proposition that the utilization of a particular “methodology” is exclusively within their domain.   Courts have generally supported school districts in holding that parents cannot dictate a particular methodology to a school district as long as the methodology chosen results in educational benefit to the child.

In this case, a new and rapidly developing technology, the cochlear implant, was involved.  That technology, with the proper (and exclusively oral) intervention makes it possible for a deaf child to learn to listen and talk at the earliest possible age.  In the past, there have been rancorous debates between proponents of “oral” education versus “total” education, the latter including the use of sign language.  However, in such situations where a child has a device implanted that can potentially enable the child to hear and talk, the old arguments are no longer valid.  The hearing officer in this case recognized that this is a new and unique situation involving a new and developing technology.  This required a fresh approach to the so-called methodology debate.  What the hearing officer held was that in cochlear implant cases, utilization of an exclusively oral environment for intervention with a child as early as possible is not a methodology consideration.  Rather an oral education is considered a minimal need for a child who uses a cochlear implant.  In fact, the testimony revealed that the use of non-oral intervention could be potentially harmful to a cochlear implant child given that the window of opportunity for training to speak and listen is very short.

We believe this case reflects the increasing pressure of certain new methodologies upon the stand Lachman arguments in our jurisdiction and elsewhere.