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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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Deaf Constancy. The concept of remaining deaf throughout one’s life is called deaf constancy. In Inner Lives of Deaf Children (2001), I mentioned the observation of Schlesinger (1972) that deaf children who do not have adult deaf role models often ask if they will become hearing when they grow up. In both phase I and phase II, all of the children and adolescents saw themselves as continuing to be deaf throughout their lives.

The participants’ belief in deaf constancy is particularly interesting in this age of cochlear implants. A common misconception about cochlear implants is that they make one hearing. In actuality, not all deaf people qualify as potential candidates for cochlear implants. In the phase I study, Joe talked about the possibility of having one’s hearing restored, but during the phase II study, his sense of deaf constancy was consistent with that of the other participants.

It should be noted that Schlesinger’s research took place in an era when deaf people had little media access and were not protected by antidiscrimination laws such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today’s deaf youth are growing up in a more accessible society with more, although still insufficient, visible deaf adult role models. This isn’t because of the lack of successfully employed and content deaf adults but rather because of the lack of opportunity to meet and interact with them. The majority of schools where deaf children and adolescents are mainstreamed do not employ deaf adults. Deaf community organizations and schools need to compensate for this by providing activities and pursuing media opportunities to increase this visibility for deaf youth.

Independence. All of the adolescents were pondering their futures and the options available to them. As can be seen from the examples above, they were primarily confident that they will live successful independent lives, develop careers from a wide range of options, and have a social network. Angie was particularly very inquisitive and enthusiastic, and she took an active interest in information that would help her plan and succeed in the future. She has a generally optimistic and resilient demeanor as she talks about possible future situations she will face as a deaf woman in various roles. She presents developmental responsibilities that the deaf person would confront in adulthood, such as employment, taxes, bills, home improvements, childcare, and medical care, and she discusses how she would access information and communication around these responsibilities. She anticipates the need for internal and external resources.

Angie: How to know if the baby is crying or if the baby is hungry. How to take care of things if the baby needs a diaper changed. How to take care of children and school, contacting the school, bringing an interpreter to talk to the teacher. Getting an interpreter for a job interview, or for emergencies if you get hurt or are in the hospital and need to talk to a doctor.
Covert and Overt Identity

Identity is a process that develops and changes over time, involving many aspects of one’s biopsychosocial and spiritual systems. It is constructed from our understandings of the biological (i.e., disability, gender, age), psychological (drives, intellect, competencies, self-understandings), social (race, ethnicity, cultural, social roles, the resolution of conflict and crisis), and spiritual (Native American, Muslim, Jewish, Christian) aspects of our beings. It is also a compilation of our interpretations of our experiences in the past, our selves and experiences in the present, and our images of what is possible for us in the future (Tatum, 1997). It is a symbolic-interactive process of mind, self, and society (Mead, 1934). It involves our self-perceptions, which lead to self-definitions (covert identity), as well as the perceptions that others have of us and the identities they assign to us (overt identity).

Covert Identity. To discover someone’s covert identity, or the identity one adopts but that may or may not be observed or assigned by others, we can ask, When you walk into a room, how do you see yourself first (e.g., deaf, male, or black)? What is missing from that question is information on the potential multicultural existences of the other people in the room. For example, when I interviewed Joe for the phase I interview, he considered himself hard of hearing, and he admitted that his best friend—who was also mainstreamed, had a hearing family, and used spoken English—was “deaf like me.” At that point in his life, Joe, who is the only deaf member of his family, expressed his surprise at the different behavioral norms and communication patterns he observed in an all-deaf family. Since that time, Joe has grown attached to a social group of deaf adolescents who sign, and he now sometimes refers to himself as deaf rather than hard of hearing. He acknowledges that he speaks with hearing people (i.e., in his family) and signs with deaf people and appreciates social opportunities with both.

Joe encounters audism, communication barriers, and racism at his predominantly white, hearing public school. He appreciates and identifies with his deaf peer group, in which the communication barriers disappear, even though, as a black teenager, he is in the minority. When he gets together with family members for holidays, he finds himself isolated from the conversations among his hearing relatives. Thus, Joe deals with different aspects of his being in different situations. His experiences reveal that “as the deaf child develops an individual identity, his or her multiple cultures will influence the shaping of this identity” (Schirmer, 2001, pp. 120–121). For Joe, these multiple cultures include the interaction of African American, European American, hearing, and deaf cultures (Anderson & Grace, 1991). At the time of this study, Joe had not yet experienced an African American Deaf culture, though he may at some point. If he does, it will become the fifth cultural influence on his identity.


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