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Conference on Deaf Mental Health Issues
In May of 1995, I attended the fifteenth annual conference of the Ontario Council on Deaf Mental Health Issues held at the University of Toronto. I was part of a panel of parents who spoke about their experiences to mental health professionals who work with deaf patients. It was interesting for me to meet with other parents and hear their stories, particularly from parents with older children than my deaf preschooler.
I also had the pleasure to hear the keynote speech by Dr. Gerard Kysela, a professor in education psychology at the University of Alberta, who stated that a developmental view, rather than a disability view, would benefit a deaf child and his or her family the most. We had come to this conclusion as well.
Dr. Kysela’s keynote presentation was entitled “How Families Cope with Deafness: A Family Adaptation Model.” According to his research, families that have good coping skills and receive support acquire a new set of beliefs and values and adapt well to having a deaf (or disabled) child. He insisted that moving from the pathological (medical) view of deafness to an educational (developmental) view will lead families to concentrate on what the child can do rather than on what he or she can’t do.
He said when professionals intervene, the intervention must be family-centered as opposed to the long-held practice of focusing on the child with the disability. Dr. Kysela recommended that parents “reframe the disability and contain the concept of disability to bring it into perspective.”
Dr. Kysela advocated a bilingual (ASL and English) approach for language acquisition, as this method can best replicate the ten to twenty million utterances between a “normal” hearing child and a hearing parent, which researchers say is an average exchange over an eighteen- to twenty-month period. Also, he said the family’s exposure to Deaf role models is important in their adjustment and the reframing of the disability.
I wrote an article about Dr. Kysela and the conference for the Ontario Medical Association’s magazine, which appeared in the July 1995 issue. I am grateful to Jeff Henry, an assistant editor at the time and someone who befriended me when I started working at the OMA, for getting the article included in the issue that went out to all the physicians in the province of Ontario. The article’s key message was that physicians, audiologists, and people who service the Deaf community need to view deafness from more than just a pathological viewpoint and to present all the options to families of newly diagnosed deaf or hard of hearing children.
Two years before attending that conference, Brenda and I were already in the process of reframing the disability and adjusting our perceptive. We were looking at what we could do to adjust to Miranda, rather trying to have her “change” for us. The key was getting to know more deaf people.
Some wise old soul, I’m not sure who, suggested that we hire a Deaf teenager to serve as our babysitter. This was one of the best things we did in the first few months after learning of Miranda’s deafness. A deaf babysitter served three purposes for us: (1) we got a care giver who spoke our child’s natural language fluently, (2) we got an idea of our child’s potential from this deaf adolescent, and (3) Brenda got time to grow her piano-teaching business.