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Context, Cognition, and Deafness

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Integrating a wide range of research paradigms and their focuses provides a challenge to this approach. Differences in analysis levels employed across disciplines can be compared to the story of three blind men trying to describe and understand an elephant. One explores the elephant’s trunk and exclaims that the animal is like a snake; another, after feeling the tail, exclaims that it is a rope; while the third, after running his hands up and down one of the elephant’s legs, believes that it must be a tree. A dialogue integrating their experiences would have been more descriptive of this multifaceted animal. An example more central to this field is the difference between clinical and cultural paradigms. This dichotomy is often related to an emic-etic point of view (Clark 1998). The clinical paradigm is often characterized as hearing-centered (Lane 1988) or an etic (e.g., outsider) perspective, and the cultural paradigm is characterized as a deaf-centered (Paul and Jackson 1993) or emic (e.g., insider) perspective.

Within this dichotomy, the clinical framework understands “deafness as a disease or disability . . . [to be either] prevented or cured” (Paul and Jackson 1993, xiv). This clinical framework assumes that research on hearing individuals will apply directly to individuals with hearing losses. In contrast, the cultural view focuses on broader effects such as sociology and anthropology, which “depathologize deafness” (ibid.). This culture paradigm “has called into question the indiscriminate application of mainstream developmental theories” (ibid.) to the development of those with hearing losses. Both frameworks can be useful when fit within conceptual frameworks that “explore the interaction of hearing children of hearing parents as well as those of deaf children of both hearing and deaf parents” (ibid.). This type of conceptual framework has been called a “developmental-interactive” model. Comparisons now are made not only in regard to deaf children found within different family contexts (deaf vs. hearing parents) but with hearing children found within these same contexts. The strength of each framework now complements the other in explaining person-environment interactions through more interdisciplinary modeling.

Interested Disciplines and Some Concerns

Disciplines related to the intersection of cognition and deafness include anthropology, education, psychology, linguistics, sociology, communication disorders, and neuroscience. Each of these disciplines has overlapping subspecialties that if integrated could inform a broad view of context, cognition, and deafness. Several issues have hindered this type of integration. Diverse research paradigms are used within these related disciplines. The different methodologies make interdisciplinary dialogue and cross-study comparisons problematic. Research is spread widely across different settings and published within discipline-specific journals, making broad access to the information more “hit or miss.”

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