On a beautiful balmy February day, I participated in a pre-NATSAP consultant tour that included a visit to the National Deaf Academy (NDA). A delightful contrast to winter's blustery days at my North Idaho home, exploring the beautiful 20-acre NDA campus was wonderfully complimented by a warm 70-degree sunny day. While touring this very unique residential treatment center, I learned that it not only provided intensive psychiatric treatment for an otherwise underserved special needs population, but it did so in a home-style setting. NDA offers a modern and serene atmosphere with a surprising number of amenities.
The National Deaf Academy is the only residential psychiatric treatment center that exclusively serves deaf and hard of hearing children, adolescents and adults of all ages. NDA provides comprehensive services for Autism Spectrum Disorders; I was impressed with the professionalism and competency of their staff. The program prides itself on the fact that half of their staff is comprised of deaf or hard of hearing individuals. While there, I learned that deaf people have very limited access to mental health care, and have very unique neurological and psychiatric needs. It is because Autistic and deaf people share similar issues with language, that this facility also offers services for Autism Spectrum Disorders, including autism, PDD-NOS (atypical autism) and Asperger's syndrome. Deaf and autistic people also experience difficulties with social interactions, sensory integration and adaptive behaviors.
NDA utilizes a multidisciplinary approach which allows the treatment team to gather input from the fields of psychology, psychiatry, medicine, social work, nursing, recreational therapy and education. If residents require additional services, the team is able to expand into those areas as well. I was impressed with how the classrooms and living areas are designed for the hearing impaired, including lights on the outside of rooms for contact without intrusion, audible flashing alarms, TTYs available throughout the facility, along with closed-captioned televisions with cable access.
I know that many people believe deafness causes more social interaction difficulties than blindness, but I did not know that there is a prevalence of psychiatric problems among the deaf. Alan M. Cohen, MD, NDA's very charismatic and highly competent CEO and Medical Director said, "Many of the kids we see have extremely long-term problems that are derived from years of neglect, limited access to the same-language mental health counselors and in some cases, abuse. That constellation of problems superimposed on the typical issues related to deafness, results in a multitude of issues that …require a more highly specialized level of care… in an environment that speaks their language and understands their culture." His insight into the needs of this population was evident from hearing him talk about his facility, as well as the special precautions he employs to assure the safety of the students.
The Florida Department of Education chartered public school operates on the NDA campus 12 months of the year. This K-12 Charter School has a 1:3 staff to student ratio, as well as tutors available in the evening. After observing the teachers and students, I was extremely impressed with the competence of NDA's staff, and sobered by the difficulty of learning how to express oneself in American Sign Language (ASL), the primary language used on campus. NDA subscribes to teaching "total communication," which includes oral and sign language. One teacher described the challenges of teaching the residents who are often very concrete, especially because ASL is not literal. NDA staff then explained that nationally the average reading level for the hearing impaired is the third grade. In part, this is because they have to memorize every single character without the aid of oral cues. NDA incorporates Sensory Integration as part of the therapeutic process, and the appropriate equipment and materials are in each of the classrooms. The teachers I observed were very talented in their use of these strategies, including sensory integration, visual cues and nurturing. The students participated in the lessons and appeared pleasantly engaged.
I am glad I had this opportunity to visit NDA, it is a delightful facility that is licensed by DCF, AHCA and the State of Florida as an RTC. It is also JCAHO approved. NDA offers a state-of-the-art gymnasium with climbing wall, movie theatre, basketball court, ropes challenge course, equine therapy, and various game and crafts rooms. NDA seems like a very pleasant and safe place for students and meets its goal of providing therapeutic and educational services in a beautiful, serene and home-like setting. The length of the program is based on the individual needs of the residents and may range from nine months to as long as four years. This is an important resource for deaf or autistic students.