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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Turning the Tide: Making Life Better for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Schoolchildren

Gina A. Oliva and
Linda Risser Lytle

Chapter 3
The Struggle to Shape an Identity

“I had to compare myself to the hearing standard as that was all I knew.” (Focus group participant)

Identity encompasses many aspects. One of its defining characteristics is that it includes both our past and present experiences, and the meanings we place on those experiences, as well as the future possibilities we see for ourselves. For example, adolescents ask themselves not only “Who am I?” but also “How will I fit into the world?” Identity includes our culture, our understanding about ourselves in terms of abilities, attitudes, and behaviors, and our spirituality. It includes our understanding of race, ethnicity, disability, age, and gender.

Another important aspect of identity is that it changes over time, and that in times of crisis and transition, we are most challenged as to how we define ourselves. Identity is based on two disparate concepts: how we see ourselves and how we think others see us. If these two concepts do not match, the process of forming a strong, healthy identity is much more difficult. The term for this is psychosocial mutuality (Erikson, 1968). Psychosocial mutuality says that if my self-concept and my knowledge of how others view me do not match, I must somehow integrate and explain these differences to myself. I don’t have to accept the larger community’s evaluation of me; however, I cannot ignore it.

Many researchers have studied how being deaf impacts identity development (Bat-Chava, 2000; Glickman, 1996; Lytle, 1987; Maxwell-McCaw, 2001; Weinberg & Sterritt, 1986). Deaf identity has been explored in terms of a disability framework, a social identity framework, as an acculturation model, and as a racial identity model. The racial identity model is interesting in that it approaches identity as membership within a minority group and assumes shared experiences of oppression and discrimination from the majority culture. In the case of deaf individuals, the hearing culture is the majority culture. Glickman (1996) developed a model of culturally deaf identities in which he divided identities along a hearing world–deaf world spectrum where the highest level of identity development is a bicultural model. In this model, aspects of both deaf and hearing worlds are valued and appreciated and the deaf individual is comfortable in both worlds. Those who grow up in both environments have a natural head start with this development.

Sadly, growing up in environments that are equally supportive and valuing of the deaf child is a rare and precious thing. Too often, deaf children grow up in one culture—the hearing culture. They are made to feel they need to hide parts of themselves in order to be accepted by the majority (hearing) culture. They live in speech-only environments where conversational access is enormously difficult and often not possible, and this limits their language, cognitive, and social development, in addition to their identity development. This language deprivation has serious consequences (Humphries et al., 2012) to literacy, relationships, and academic and career success. As a result, too many deaf individuals are neither comfortable nor successful in either the deaf or hearing world.

Parents, Teachers, Community, and Deaf Peers in Identity Development

Parents, teachers, and deaf peers all can play important roles in supporting deaf and hard of hearing children and youth and in strengthening their self-concepts and sense of identity. Those of our research participants who felt most supported in their identities as deaf or hard of hearing individuals were considerably more comfortable in their schools, and we learned that parents, teachers, and deaf peers played a large role in this process.


Parents who knew it was important for their child to have deaf and hard of hearing peers worked hard to make sure frequent opportunities were there, either in the school or at camps and social events. Often this required creative scheduling from school districts, and extraordinary advocacy and parental involvement. This is one participant’s story:

My parents were aware of the fact that it was also important for me to be in a Deaf environment. So, the decision was made to put me at a local public school in [city]. There was another Deaf girl who would also be attending this school in my class. We would have a sign language interpreter and it was only for like one or two classes at the end of the day. So we would be at the Deaf school all day until after lunch and then get on a bus and go for one or two classes at the local elementary school. (M31NE)
Some parents set a strong example for their deaf or hard of hearing child through advocacy, their own values and behaviors, and through open communication. We believe parents are vitally important to the development of their child’s healthy identity and self-concept, so we want to give examples of what our participants shared with us about their parents’ efforts, in advocacy for their child that demonstrated and transmitted their values, and in communicating with their child.

P a r e n t s  a s  A d v o c a t e s

Many of our participants mentioned the strong lessons in advocacy they learned from watching their parents fight for their educational rights year after year, never giving up. In fact, 16% of the survey respondents mentioned parental advocacy as extremely important shapers of their educational experiences, and the vast majority of our focus group members had involved, supportive families. One woman mentioned how by middle school she was fighting her own battles—for example, telling her interpreters how she wanted them to do their job—because she had learned this at her mother’s knee. It was such a huge part of their home life that it was impossible not to absorb these lessons.

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