Two new specialized preschools are being launched in Saskatchewan to help children who are deaf and hard of hearing.
The preschools, with 16 spaces each, will be located in Regina and Saskatoon as part of a pilot project funded by the federal government.
Nairn Gillies with Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (SDHHS) described the new program as a fantastic step forward for young children with significant hearing loss and their families.
“We’re breaking new ground as far as including deaf and hard of hearing children in a preschool setting,” Gilles said.
The province said there while there will be no program fees for parents, there may be incidental costs similar to those incurred for school field trips.
Gilles noted the first five years are the most important for accessing language and the program will provide more support for American Sign Language (ASL).
“Children who have access to early sign language, they do so much better in school,” Gillies said.
“They usually start kindergarten two full years ahead of anyone else and reduce frustration, there’s a whole different area of their brain that’s been developed because of visual language and accessibility that way.”
Following the province’s announcement of a universal hearing-loss screening program for newborns, Gillies described this as the best year for the rights of children with hearing loss that he can remember.
Previously, children with a significant hearing loss could go undiagnosed for up to two years, with an additional 18 months for a referral to an audiologist.
Following the closure of the school for the deaf in Saskatoon, Gillies described the lack of access to support services for deaf and hard of hearing children as “brutal.”
“We’ve seen kids who are growing up without access to language, and there’s been some horrible tragedies because of this,” he commented.
He said he hopes the newborn screening program, and the introduction of specialized accessible preschool programs in the province, create ripple effects for future generations.
“Getting early diagnosis and early access to learning — the future is going to look very different for deaf people in this province,” he said.
According to Gillies there is some talk of eventually expanding the program to Prince Albert.
The pilot project is funded entirely through the Canada-Saskatchewan Early Learning and Child Care Agreement, and is part of the $5.27 million committed to inclusivity programming in 2018-19.
Parents and guardians of children who are deaf and hard of hearing are encouraged to contact SDHHS to find more information or to apply for a space in Saskatoon. Regina parents are encouraged to apply directly through the Regina Public School Board.