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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Adolescents: Inner Lives and Lifeworld Development

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ALEX: It’s a lot of fun, because they can sign like me. I fit in better. It’s a better match for me because I have friends. I have so many friends.

MARY: But I guess the older I get the more I want to socialize with peers who are deaf like me and can talk, and talk, and talk with me. I like that.

Family Communication. In both studies, the participants discussed family communication. The participants recognized the communication strengths of their parents and family members. They valued the communication they had with their parents and their generally supportive relationships. The parents of all but one of the participants in the study communicate in sign language with their teenage children. While the participants appear comfortable in this communicatively accessible relationship with their parents, some expressed a desire for their other family members to be more fluent and deaflike. All the participants expressed a general discomfort and disconnect with the lack of communication access with hearing extended family members, siblings, and blended family situations where communication was not accessible.

It was apparent that isolation and discomfort increased with larger family groups. For example, the greater the number of hearing relatives and the greater the degree of separation (i.e., separate living arrangements due to divorce and custody issues, or the addition of stepfamily members in later childhood or adolescence), the more disconnected the adolescents felt. Mary tells stories of enjoyable family activities and outings with her deaf parents and siblings but has this to say about extended family gatherings:

Most of the time it is comfortable, but some . . . I have some cousins who are hearing. They’re not enthusiastic about sign language. They get together in a group, a hearing group, and ignore the deaf people. It makes me mad because it’s hard for me. We get left out.
Angie, Danny, and Pat also discussed their feelings of isolation in large family gatherings.
ANGIE: It hurts my self-esteem a little bit if the family is talking and I don’t understand what they say at all. My mom will interpret some, but I keep having to ask, “What are they saying, what are they saying?” Sometimes, like at Thanksgiving, I think my mom feels bad if she has to leave the table or if I’m in another room. It’s not a lot of fun if the family is talking. I just twiddle my thumbs, I just sit and focus on my food, and I don’t pay a lot of attention to the conversation . . . sometimes I feel really disheartened. My parents will interpret, or we’ll write, or I’ll try to watch facial expressions. Sometimes I’ll ask, “What’s wrong?” or “What’s funny?” I scream, “What’s wrong?” and my mother will explain to me and I understand, but it doesn’t feel good inside. I wish they could sign.

DANNY: Most of the time the hearing people would talk and I would play my Game Boy. I would be by myself. I’m always asking them to tell me, and they get mad because they have to repeat it; they say it twice. They speak and I ask them what they said, and then they have to sign the same thing. They get sick of it. They say, “Hold.” Or they look away and they just ignore me.

PAT: I wish they could sign like a deaf person or wish they were deaf. I want them to all sign . . . I want friends. I mean, I sit there and they watch a movie and I can’t understand. I’m stuck . . . If I don’t understand, I’m just kind of lonely and uncomfortable. I just sit there. I don’t understand what they’re saying. I feel kinda stuck.

Joe recognizes and speaks appreciatively of his mother’s support and ability to communicate with him: “I would say that for many years my mom’s been helping, and I really love her. She was there for me.” He acknowledges that he is closest to his sibling who has some sign language skills, and he reports another is “stubborn” and has low expectations of him.

Gender Issues. In the phase I study it seemed that female family members offered the most support in communicatively inaccessible situations, but this was not the case in the phase II study. During adolescence, the participants were more independent in dealing with communication barriers.

Overall, the adolescents presented their fathers as more competent, active communicators with a greater degree of linguistic matching than they did in the phase I study. They appeared to have more interaction with their fathers during their adolescent years than they had as children. This may be due partially to the fact that four of these children’s parents were divorcing and the children were living with their mothers during the phase I study. The research literature suggests that hearing parents of deaf children typically grieve upon discovering that their child is deaf (Harvey, 1989, 2003; Schlesinger & Meadow, 1972) and go through a period of adjustment (Raimondo, 2001). In addition, the general literature suggests that there are gender differences in grief responses. However, there is a dearth of research examining what, if any, gender differences exist in the grief responses of parents of deaf and hard of hearing children; nor is there research on the developmental process of this grief and its effects on family interaction. Such research might offer additional insights into the adolescents’ reports of more active participation and increased communication competence of their fathers at this point in their lives.

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