Natural Environments for Infants and Toddlers Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and Their Families

This information was originally developed by the Joint Committee of ASHA and the Council on Education of the Deaf (CED). The Joint Committee was disbanded in 2010, ending a long and productive 30-year relationship.

The concept of "natural environments" as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 1997, 2004) has created confusion regarding the appropriate settings for services for families and their infants and toddlers who are deaf or hard of hearing. The purpose of this page is to provide clarification and recommendations from the Joint Committee of ASHA and the Council on Education of the Deaf (CED) on selecting natural environments for families and their young deaf or hard of hearing children. The Joint Committee advocates for appropriate environments for services. There are also resources for further information.

Defining Natural Environments

Natural environments for infants and toddlers who are deaf or hard of hearing are environments that include family members and caregivers, are developmentally appropriate, and provide direct communication with adults and peers through one or more fully accessible natural languages (e.g., American Sign Language, spoken English, or Spanish). Natural signed and spoken languages are languages that originate and develop over time through ongoing social interaction among members of a cultural community. Natural environments include the home, child care center, school, or other setting where the child's language(s) and communication modality (or modalities) are used by fluent adult users and where peers are using and/or acquiring the same languages through similar modalities. Natural environments should be easily accessible to families and provide opportunities for families to meet with professionals who are knowledgeable about language and communication development in children with a hearing loss and to interact with other families who have similarly developing children, whether hearing, deaf, or hard of hearing. Natural environments for infants and toddlers who are deaf or hard of hearing and their families should be places where all have full access to language and communication through visual, auditory, and/or tactile communication systems specific to that child and family.

IDEA Part C and Natural Environments

Part C of IDEA states that early intervention services, "to the maximum extent appropriate, are provided in natural environments, including the home, and community settings in which children without disabilities participate; and are provided in conformity with an individualized family service plan adopted in accordance with section 636" [§ 632(4)(G),(H); also see 34 C.F.R. §§ 303.13(8), 303.26].

The legislation provides the opportunity for services in other settings when the parents and the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) team determine that a child's needs cannot be satisfactorily met in a "natural environment" as defined above. The federal law states:

(A) to the maximum extent appropriate, early intervention services are provided in natural environments; and

(B) the provision of early intervention services for any infant or toddler with a disability occurs in a setting other than a natural environment that is most appropriate, as determined by the parent and the individualized family service plan team, only when early intervention cannot be achieved satisfactorily for the infant or toddler in a natural environment [IDEA 2004 § 635 (a)(16)(A),(B), 34 C.F.R. § 303.126].

While the IFSP team is required to justify why services may need to be provided in settings other than a natural environment [IDEA 2004 § 636(d)(5), 34 C.F.R. § 303.344(d)(1)(ii)(A)], the Joint Committee of ASHA-CED believed the team should not feel compelled to provide an undue burden of justification, as this would violate the spirit of the requirement that the IFSP be based on the individual needs of the child.

Making Decisions About Natural Environments

The U.S. Department of Education published a Policy Guidance in 1992 regarding free, appropriate public education and placement decisions for students (3–21 years old) who are deaf and eligible for services under Part B of IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Federal Register, October 30, 1992 [Vol. 57, No. 211]). According to IDEA 2004, the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) Team must consider the following factors in the development of the IEP and when making placement decisions: the student's language and communication needs; opportunities for direct communication with peers and professional personnel in the child's language and communication mode; academic level; full range of needs, including opportunity for direct instruction in the child's language and communication mode; and whether the child needs assistive technology devices and services. ASHA and CED believed that the decision of the IFSP team regarding the setting(s) for services for young children (birth to 3 years old) and their families should take into consideration the above special factors and should ensure equal opportunity to obtain appropriate services regardless of race, ethnicity, language, or other personal characteristics. Decisions should likewise take into consideration the availability of the following:

  • fluent adult users of the language(s) and communication modality (or modalities) of the child and family
  • professionals who are culturally competent and provide learning environments that promote the development of language, cognition, and social-emotional growth at age-appropriate levels
  • professionals who provide the technological and environmental support for the hearing, visual, and tactile technology (or technologies) used by the child and family
  • peers who are similarly developing and share the language(s) and communication modality (or modalities) of the individual child
  • adults and peers who communicate directly with the child (not through a sign language or oral interpreter or translator)
  • professionals who provide support for families to develop meaningful relationships with other families and professionals
  • professionals who provide support for families to develop meaningful communication that enhances the opportunity for their young children to become a fully participating members of their families

Appropriate Setting For Services

The selection of a setting for services should be determined by the IFSP team. Parents are equal participants on the team and, along with professionals, determine when, where, and how services are provided. If there is a disagreement, families may voice their concerns and have them documented, request mediation, or file a complaint or lawsuit.

ASHA-CED Joint Committee Recommendations

When determining the setting for services for families and their young children:

  • consider home, community, and program settings (including center-based programs) that provide full support for language and communication development for the child and family
  • base recommendations on a comprehensive assessment of the child and the family's priorities, resources, and concerns
  • provide families with comprehensive information about all programs and providers
  • encourage families to visit all programs providing services to young children with hearing loss and their families
  • support families in selecting the programs, providers, settings, and services that best meet the needs of the child and family
  • recommend programs and services that employ qualified providers who are fluent users of the language(s) and communication modality (or modalities) of the child

Web Resources on Natural Environments

ASHA Corporate Partners