Iowa is poised to start a program already operating in 18 states that’s designed to help deaf and hard of hearing children gain language skills, so they’re prepared to enter kindergarten.

Joni Boone of Ankeny and her husband found out their daughter, Lena, was profoundly hard of hearing at birth and the child lost her hearing by the time she was six months old. “When you’re a hearing parent and you find out your child is deaf, it can be really overwhelming,” Boone told Radio Iowa. “You’re essentially told, first of all, that there’s a language barrier that you’re going to have to overcome.”

Lena Boone struggled to communicate in preschool, but she’s now five and her mother said Lena is thriving at school. Studies show many deaf or hard of hearing children do not learn communications skills like American Sign Language early enough and they enter kindergarten at a distinct disadvantage. The legislature has passed a bill to set up a mentoring program, so parents like Boone can help the parents of newborns and toddlers who’re diagnosed with hearing difficulties.

“As a hearing parent, what we don’t always get is a lot of options and a lot of education right off the bat,” Boone said, “We get solutions. We get medical help, but we don’t necessarily get another family that’s going to come alongside us and say: ‘I know what you’re thinking. I know what you’re feeling and I want to answer any questions you may have.'”

Boone’s father — Lena’s grandfather — is Danny Carroll, a statehouse lobbyist who’s a former legislator and he was a leading advocate for passage of the bill. In addition to the parent mentoring program, it outlines the benchmarks toddlers and young children who are deaf or hard of hearing need to reach to be able to communicate.

“What so many families find out if they don’t do what is necessary to get their child ready for school, they show up at kindergarten behind and it’s very, very hard then to catch up,” Carroll told Radio Iowa. “You just keep falling further behind because of an inability to communicate, so this will help parents know where they stand as they prepare their child for those early school years.”

Senator Ken Rozenboom of Oskaloosa worked on the bill and he said state records indicate testing shows about 100 deaf or hard of hearing babies are born in Iowa each year.

“The Department of Public Health, the Deparment of Education, the AEAs will provide support to help them learn to communicate hopefully before they get to the classroom, so they can learn, they can stay current with their peers, so they have a chance,” Rozenboom said during an interview this week, “that’s what it’s all about.”

Representative Sandy Salmon of Janesville said the bill is the product of years worth of work. “This bill is needed because too many deaf children come to school lacking language or having very limited language,” Salmon said a year ago when the bill was first considered in the House, “thus critical time learning to read, do math or gain other content is lost, putting them behind grade level right from the start.”

On Thursday, Representative Art Staed of Cedar Rapids noted the bill passed the House and Senate unanimously. “Deaf children, by the time they reach school — kindergarten, are often 4-5 years behind their peers and never have the opportunity to catch up,” Staed said. “This is a way to address that issue.”

Governor Reynolds is expected to sign the bill into law.