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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Reflections: My Life in the Deaf and Hearing Worlds
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What, if anything, can be done about this? What could I have done differently, growing up as a hard of hearing child? What can any “nonstandard” person do to make everyday situations more positive and less frustrating? What can parents do to make life a little easier for their deaf or hard of hearing child? Here, again, sociology has something useful to say.

The Power of Positive Situations

Rev. Norman Vincent Peale was not a sociologist, but he did write an influential book many years ago entitled The Power of Positive Thinking. Although positive thinking is certainly better than negative thinking, or not thinking at all, one thing that sociology has emphasized over the years is what might be called “the power of positive situations.” That is to say, it is important not only for people to change their thoughts but also for situations to be structured, and changed if necessary, to promote actions that can lead to more positive and productive attitudes. A classic example is the civil rights movement and legislation that accompanied that effort. For instance, in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other civil rights legislation became law, there was very little support for marriage between white and black people in the United States. (In some states, antimiscegenation laws made such marriages illegal until the Supreme Court declared otherwise in 1967.) Today, there is much less opposition. According to the Gallup poll, which has been tracking this issue since the 1950s, in 1958 only 4 percent of whites approved of such interracial marriages; by 2007, this had increased to 77 percent. This change wasn’t simply the result of people having more positive thoughts or pleas from religious and moral leaders encouraging people to love or at least get along with one another. Rather, this transformation was to a great extent the result of modifications in laws and practices that eventually led to changes in attitudes. Legislating morality, or changing the culture, is a slow process, perhaps, but a powerful one.*

How might this apply to a deaf or hard of hearing child? Or to another kid with a physical impairment that leads to a disabling situation? It is not only the physical condition itself that is the problem, but also the nature of the situation in which those with the condition typically find themselves. Changing the situation or the environment, especially for children and adolescents, is easier said than done, but considerable progress has been made in this regard during the past quarter-century. For example, Public Law 94-142, mentioned earlier, has led to a massive mainstreaming movement resulting in the inclusion of thousands of children with disabilities into regular classrooms in our public schools. Although certainly not without problems or controversies (many Deaf people prefer educational programs in traditional residential schools because of the special visual needs of deaf and hard of hearing children, and sometimes the integration of children with disabilities into mainstreamed classrooms is far less than ideal), the very fact that kids without special needs are interacting with children with such needs on a regular, day-to-day basis can’t help but lead to more positive attitudes. My wife Arlene taught for many years in a public elementary school that had dozens of children with disabilities integrated into regular classrooms. These kids often need special accommodations, but that is what the law requires, and for the other children who grow up in this setting this integration is a natural part of the social and cultural landscape in their elementary school.

* Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is perhaps better known as a former U.S. senator from New York than as a former sociologist, had this to say about legislating morality in a frequently quoted aphorism: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Legislating morality—or trying to change behavior and attitudes by changing laws—is not invariably successful, as the failed effort to ban alcohol sales and consumption in the U.S. during the Prohibition era (1919–33) reminds us.
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