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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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As a whole, these deaf adolescents have experienced many transitions. Their families have undergone divorce, remarriage, and the addition of new family members through childbirth and blended family arrangements. Since the phase I study, several of them have transferred to different schools, which has necessitated developing new communication relationships and strategies to access information. Leaving environments (e.g., communities, schools, neighborhoods) that the adolescents and their parents have carefully constructed to accommodate the deaf teen is more stressful because it means having to start the advocacy process all over again.

Cliques, Crowds, and Multiple Inaccessible Environments

Cliques, or peer groups, and crowds take on new meanings in adolescence. These deaf adolescents are beginning to find peer groups, particularly those who are in residential schools, where they have a larger group of students to choose from; here they also have crowds. One difference between the residential school students and the mainstreamed students that became obvious in this study is that the mainstreamed students have limited options for both cliques and crowds. They do not have a critical mass of peers from which to choose friends and acquaintances. The wider variety of education programs available to all adolescents means that deaf adolescents are spread out over a larger geographic area with little opportunity for a reference group, cliques, and crowds. These students experience aloneness in multiple environments. Danny told us this when he spoke of being with his stepsiblings when they would just talk. Mary said she was often alone at her hearing school. Pat was alone and without a peer group at home and in his community.

The adolescents experience a closer relationship with family members who sign and a disconnect with those who do not. What unhappiness or discontent they expressed about their lifeworlds centered primarily around situations where they are disconnected from communication, acceptance, and meaningful socialization with others like themselves. Danny’s dismal mood seemed to be tied to this and to his notion that hearing people are “lucky.” At times the teenagers were reduced to the role of passive observer rather than active participants. Like hearing adolescents, all of the participants were content in situations where they experienced a sense of belonging, attachment with their parents, and ease and depth in communication.

American teenagers are exposed to traumatic news events through television media, are aware of the dangers in a post-9/11 world, and are knowledgeable about global issues, world events, and security threats. Some of the participants talked about this, and others raised general self-protection issues in relation to bullying, dealing with strangers, and avoiding trouble when seen as “different.” It is unclear if the adults in their lives are helping them process this information for accuracy or if they are receiving information for emergency preparation and coping with the threats of crises in the world around them through print media.

Critical Thinking and Autonomy

Adolescence is a time of developing self-sufficiency, independence, and critical thinking skills, and these deaf adolescents showed signs of going through these changes. Angie is able to identify when she disagrees with the ideas of others and communicate her own opinions, but she is also able to differentiate between situations where it is or is not advantageous to express her views. She can recall previous perspectives on issues she considers and can explain how her perspectives have changed. Meanwhile, she continues to be conscious of safety issues. She loves and respects her family and knows that her parents love and respect her in turn.

All of the participants in this study indicated a very conscious and affecting awareness of the struggles they experience in communication in multiple environments that are not accessible to them. This arose in their discussions of their relationships with family and friends, at school, and in the community. This is generally not an issue for hearing adolescents, except in situations where English is a second language.

The participants in this study transferred back and forth between schools at a rate that is possibly greater than that of the general adolescent population. The reasons for these transfers often involve communication philosophies and opportunities for social development as well as perceived quality of education.


The phase II study highlights the ability of deaf and hard of hearing youth to be our teachers, our guides, and our narrators of the deaf experience. They have shown us that they can and ought to be counted upon to contribute to the knowledge base about deaf adolescents. This valuable information should guide the development of theory, policy, and practice.

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