GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign a bipartisan bill to improve the language skills for children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Even in Michigan’s divided state government, HB 5777 passed with nearly unanimous support.

For many who are hard of hearing, the idea is a long time coming. Advocates for kids who are deaf or hard of hearing say they have long been falling behind in Michigan schools.

“Every day I get home and I cry,” Natalie Grupido, a principal’s assistant for the Michigan School for the Deaf, said during a March committee hearing. “My heart breaks because of the students. They are just neglected.”

“As I got older, I noticed many of my deaf peers were falling behind at school,” said Sean Forbes, a deaf rap artist. “Educators and parents wanted their deaf child to be able to speak. And this caused many of them to fall through the cracks of the education system.”

Language learning starts way before kids begin school, and advocates say kids who are deaf or hard of hearing aren’t getting the same treatment as others.

“There are so many children right now in the state of Michigan that have waited and missed out on that acquisition and later in their life they have no foundational language,” said Lori Earls, another woman who is deaf.

That’s why state lawmakers have passed the bill to create a tool for parents to use to track their child’s progress learning a language. For kids who are deaf or hard of hearing, the tool would expose them to American Sign Language early on.

“Research has shown if a deaf child seen sign language, it has the equivalent effect of a hearing child hearing language,” said State Rep. John Cherry, D-Flint, during an interview with News 8 on Monday. “Making sure that a deaf child is exposed to language of some form like sign language is critical.”

“If a kid isn’t getting that early development, it looks like they’re behind from day one and then for their entire school career,” Cherry added.

The goal is to reduce the gap by the time they’re in school for the first time.

“We get that child exposed to another form of language in the form of sign language and the parents know that then that kid is going to be more ready because they will have that brain development when that child enters kindergarten or preschool,” Cherry added.

It’s unclear exactly what the tool would look like. The Michigan Department of Education would need to create it by August of 2025 and help implement it in school districts as well as the Michigan School for the Deaf.

According to the bill, the tool must include comprehensive information about spoken English or American Sign Language and also set milestones for language development.

Cherry said he expects the governor to make a decision on whether to sign the bill sometime this week.

Some believe the idea will be transformative.

“If we can just get kids exposed to language in the form of sign language or spoken language, it is a major success for the future of those kid’s lives,” Cherry said.

“As parents, we need to give our children all of the tools to succeed,” Forbes added. “Teachers need to give their students tools to succeed and deaf babies should have all the tools they possibly can including learning ASL.”

Others felt differently, including the Michigan Audiology Coalition. The group’s legislative director, Casey Stach, spoke out against the bill during a March hearing.

Stach, an audiologist who has worked with children who are deaf and hard of hearing for 32 years, claimed the bill “distracts from other early intervention programs for deaf and hard of hearing children in Michigan.”

“Early On which is housed within the Michigan Department of Education tracks language development and performance assessments to monitor progress on Deaf and hard of hearing children birth to 3 years of age,” Stach wrote in a letter opposing the bill. “After age 3, these children are transitioned to their local Intermediate School District. Additionally, the Michigan Department of Education, Low Incidence Outreach provides support for students who are Deaf or Hard of hearing, by providing training for staff to conduct assessments to monitor progress in ASL.”

Stach also claimed the bill focuses on a “single point in time during an assessment” rather than prioritizing a multidisciplinary approach based on the needs of a child. Additionally, he said it would “inject bias,” saying the bill is “biased to favor American Sign Language.”