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Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School

Gina A. Oliva

Chapter Three: A Glimpse at Everyday Life

When my mother first read Deaf in America, a landmark book about the Deaf community, she objected to a term she came across--hearing person.1 "I don't like being called a hearing person," she said. "I'm just a person!" I explained to her that when I first arrived at Gallaudet and heard the term, I too thought it was weird. But I have come to learn that it was a necessary descriptor for use in conversation about issues related to hearing loss. So I must emphasize that hearing person is never used in this book in a derogatory fashion. Hearing is simply an adjective used to distinguish between the subjects of this book: the solitary deaf or hard of hearing individuals and the hearing people around them. It is no different than a book about race relations referring to individuals as black or white.

So, what is daily life really like for deaf or hard of hearing children who grow up in a hearing neighborhood and attend the same schools as everyone else? How do hearing adults and children in neighborhood schools, most having never experienced life with a hearing loss, behave toward such a child? What does their behavior suggest about their attitudes toward d/Deaf people?

To explore how society's ideas about d/Deaf people have translated into the attitudes and behavior of teachers and students toward deaf and hard of hearing schoolchildren, I took a sabbatical in the year 2000 and embarked on what I decided to call the Solitary Mainstream Project. All of the participants who volunteered for this study had college educations. Deaf or hard of hearing adults who did not do well academically in the mainstream are unlikely to voluntarily participate in research studies. Identifying and locating such adults would be quite difficult. Their voice is sorely lacking and sorely needed.

For interested readers, a description of the methods I used and a summary of participant characteristics are included in the Appendix.

I initially asked participants to tell me anything they wished about their experiences growing up as the only deaf or hard of hearing child in their school. From these writings, I determined four general themes: best teacher, worst teacher, best classmate, and worst classmate--and asked them to elaborate on those topics.

Best Teacher

Most of the participants described their best teacher as the one who took the time to reach out and make them feel recognized, cared for, valued, or protected. The participants often saw this behavior as "above and beyond the call of duty." Some educators, parents, or counselors might argue that this was special treatment and as such was unnecessary or undesirable. However, virtually all the essays submitted suggest that solitary deaf or hard of hearing children experience ongoing and pervasive challenges to their self-esteem and confidence while attending local schools. The exceptional positive regard from certain teachers seems to have provided a necessary counterbalance--that of building or restoring self-esteem. Participants, such as the following, frequently mentioned that the encouragement they received from a single teacher remained with them for the duration of their academic careers.

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