A new state law outlines the visual language skills deaf and hard of hearing children need to learn — things like fingerspelling and American Sign Language — so they’re prepared for kindergarten.

The law also establishes a mentoring program for parents of newborns and toddlers who are diagnosed with hearing difficulties. Tina Caloud, outreach director for the Iowa School for the Deaf, estimates there are at last 2000 deaf or hard of hearing students in Iowa’s K-12 schools.

“We have been trying to propose this bill for several years now and it finally has been passed into law and we are absolutely thrilled,” Caloud said. “We are ready to work hard, work collaboratively for education our deaf and hard of hearing children across the state, to ensure they have language access,” she said. “This means both American Sign Language and English.”

Studies show the majority of deaf children who enter kindergarten without knowing American Sign Language never catch up academically.

“Don’t leave deaf children out. Don’t leave them behind,” Iowa Association for the Deaf president Shirley Hampton said. “Involve them in any type of communication that is occurring and that will allow them to thrive.”

The Iowa Association for the Deaf is pushing legislators to offer closed captioning on the livestream of debate in the House and Senate. And the group says a state law may be needed to ensure emergency warning systems alert everyone.

“Any public places, such as the airport, anything like that, restaurants — we really need to make sure that it’s accessible for deaf individuals and the community, especially in those emergency situations such as a tornado,” Hampton said. “It’s vital not only for deaf people, but blind people as well to make sure they have access to that communication.”

Hampton was recently eating in a central Iowa restaurant and saw other customers clustered around a television, then leave the dining room. She had no idea they had heard about a tornado warning through the television and were seeking shelter in the kitchen.

(Photo courtesy of the Iowa School for the Deaf)