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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Cochlear Implants: Evolving Perspectives
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Deaf families have unique strengths and challenges. Through the use of ASL, Deaf families are able to provide full access to language for their children from birth. Deaf children with fluently signing parents acquire language at the same rate as hearing children through spoken language (Meier, 1991; Petitto, 2000; Volterra & Iverson, 1995; Volterra et al., 2006). ASL provides a foundation for the acquisition of other languages (including English) and appears to provide an advantage for acquiring spoken English for children who have cochlear implants (Preisler, Tvingstedt, & Ahlström, 2002; Yoshinaga-Itano & Sedey, 2000; Yoshinaga-Itano, 2006).

Deaf families considering cochlear implants for their children have unique challenges. For example, hearing parents can easily provide spoken English support at home, whereas deaf parents may need to rely on other resources. A pilot study was conducted in 2008 to learn more about the perspectives of deaf parents who had decided on cochlear implants for their children and to discover how they were supporting literacy and language development in ASL and English. The results of this investigation may provide professionals working  with deaf families with suggestions for how to provide better information and support.

An interview protocol was designed to answer the following questions:

1. What do deaf families hope their children will be able to accomplish with cochlear implants?
2. How do deaf families support their children’s language development in ASL and English?
3. What educational choices and decisions do they make?
4. What advantages as well as challenges do they face in supporting their children’s language, literacy, and cultural development?

Interviews with these families provided a glimpse into their personal goals and beliefs as well as their successes and challenges for supporting their children’s development.

Participants and Research Setting

Participants interviewed for this investigation were mothers who are deaf and have young children with cochlear implants. All parents used both ASL and written English with their children. The population of deaf parents with deaf children who have cochlear implants is quite small compared to the population of hearing parents with deaf children who have cochlear implants, making it difficult to find a large number of participants. A “snowball” approach was used to locate families to participate. Julie contacted Cochlear Implant Children of Deaf Adults, a support group for deaf parents with deaf children who have cochlear implants. This group has connections with deaf families with children with cochlear implants across the country. The support group was formed to provide support for deaf parents seeking advice and to share experiences about their journey. An invitation to participate in this investigation was posted on the support group’s listserv site. Only four families expressed interest. One of the families was eliminated from participation in the study because the child had not yet undergone cochlear implantation. The fact that only three families agreed to participate may have been an indication of some reluctance among these nonparticipating families to trust that the researcher, who was herself deaf, would be accepting of their decisions, be nonjudgmental, and maintain confidentiality.

Description of Participants

Sierra comes from a multigeneration deaf family. She has a son who was born deaf and received a cochlear implant when he was around 18 months old. Her husband is hard of hearing.

Jasmine was the only deaf member of her birth family. She and her deaf husband have several young children. Their daughter received her cochlear implant when she was 20 months old. Her daughter was exposed to ASL from the time she was born. After receiving her cochlear implant, spoken language developed rapidly.

The third mother interviewed for the study, Lauren, also is from a multigeneration deaf family. She grew up in mainstream settings and was part of both hearing and Deaf communities. She and her late deafened husband have several children. Their daughter received her cochlear implant at age 7.

Each participant was asked where and how they would be most comfortable doing the interview. All three interviews were conducted in different parts of the United States.

Data Collection

The data for this study were derived from interviews with the above three participants. Each interview was slightly different depending on the comfort level of the interviewee and her individual experiences. From time to time, questions needed to be restated to ensure that the participants understood the terminology used. For example, not all of the participants shared the same understanding of the term “literacy.” Consequently, the interviewer needed to explain that she was interested in learning about the family’s experiences with reading, writing, and book sharing. Whereas one participant wanted to talk more about her decision making process and the Deaf community’s reaction, others shared more about how they supported their child’s language development in ASL and English.


* All identifying information has been changed to protect confidentiality.
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