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American Annals of the Deaf

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Turning the Tide: Making Life Better for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Schoolchildren
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Typically, it was the mothers who were most involved in their child’s education. They were involved in the day-to-day communication with teachers and parents, attended IEP meetings, and made sure necessary accommodations were in place. Tutors were found, homework help was provided, and the school was kept accountable for meeting their child’s needs. Moms also often took over the role of teaching others how to communicate with their child. We are sure there are many mothers of deaf or hard of hearing children who make the painful choice to put their careers on the back burner and use their skills and energy on the home front, to fight for their child. It shouldn’t have to be like this. In our eyes, and the eyes of their children, these moms are truly heroes.

Dads were also powerful allies. One young woman who was fighting an uphill battle with her school district to convince them to use CART in her classes made little progress until her dad threatened a lawsuit. After a year of fighting, funding was finally provided for those services, and for the first time she felt like she was “on an equal playing field with hearing peers” in class (although not outside of class). This same woman stated quite strongly that parents who want their children mainstreamed must be dedicated and involved at all times in their child’s education. She realized she could not possibly have won her fight for CART without her parents’ backing.

Our participants felt enormously grateful to their parents, and they were keenly aware of how lucky they were to clearly have had parents in their corner, fighting complicated, time-consuming battles to assure they had the best education possible. Research has proven there is a strong connection between parental involvement and school success (Weiss, Bouffard, Bridgiall, & Gordon, 2009). Our participants recognized that the difference between their own successes and the struggles of some of their peers was deeply tied to parental involvement. Parents were viewed as crucial to their deaf child’s success. Schools will not be able or willing to do all they should; therefore, parents must be a visible fighting presence as strong and perpetual advocates. And if they are not able to be, our respondents stated unequivocally, their child will be better off in a school for the deaf.

Education for deaf and hard of hearing children should not be so highly dependent on parents’ involvement in the educational process. Not all parents have the education, knowledge, time, confidence, or ability to navigate the American educational system and to successfully go into battle for their child. This is especially true for parents of color, recent immigrants, and those in the lower socioeconomic classes. Without an involved parent in their corner, many deaf and hard of hearing children who are alone in the mainstream have no one to advocate for them, and they suffer greatly for it. There should be a process in place to successfully look out for the best interests of each and every school-aged deaf or hard of hearing child that is not so heavily dependent on a single parent or set of parents.

A common quandary for parents of deaf children is that they are faced with few acceptable educational choices in their local communities. Feeling strongly about wanting their child to live at home, parents often do not consider residential schools. As a result parents sometimes end up doing unbelievably difficult things for their children. One of our participants said his mother drove him back and forth to school, putting in hour-anda- half drives each way daily. She did this because she knew he needed to be in a school with other deaf children. When his parents started looking at mainstream programs, they worked hard to find a school where there would be at least one other deaf child in the same classroom. In spite of their planning and hard work, their son went through school alone, as the other deaf child soon left the school.

This young man, looking back, recognized the sacrifices his parents made for him and appreciated the home support he received as well (his parents signed, they provided him with tutors, he had closed-captioned TV, etc.). He also recognized that as lonely and unhappy as he was, there was not a lot that could be done. This story is both sad and confirming. We are sure there were painful days for both parents and son, however they were all on the same page and nobody was being fooled into thinking this was a good situation. They openly acknowledged that this was merely the best situation they could currently manage. They had their son home. He was getting a good education. He had a supportive family who signed and was able to provide him with educational enhancements. The one thing that would have made it a better (much better) situation would have been to provide their son with a critical mass of deaf and hard of hearing peers and adults. And this, like so many other families in their situation, they could not do.

A few of our participants had deaf mentors involved with their families, and all were strongly supportive of such. Mentors were seen as a vast source of information and resources. Equally as important, if not more important, they were seen as role models for the deaf child. For parents, they were adult models of what their deaf child would become. Knowing a well-adjusted deaf adult, rather than having superficial knowledge of some stereotypical deaf adult, is enormously important in building hope, realistic expectations for the future, and language competence—all of which support a child’s growing sense of self.

c o m m u n i c a t i o n :  d i f f i c u l t  c o n v e r s a t i o n s

There can be no doubt that being a successful and happy mainstreamed student takes both considerable work and considerable luck. It also takes considerable communication between child and parents. Regardless of the language and communication used in the family, it is vital that the parent and child have the ability to engage in lengthy and substantive conversations about difficult topics. Our participants told us very clearly that they knew the great sacrifices their parents had made for them and thus tried to be careful not to overburden them with school troubles or to disappoint them by not meeting expectations. Hence, our informants did not always share their troubles with a parent. However, when they did, the best parents were the ones who were able to bear difficult conversations and—together—to find solutions to educational problems.

Our participants stressed the importance of parents being able to discern the words that were not said. For example, clearly everything is often not fine, even though that’s what parents are told. Kids sometimes don’t know how to talk about difficult issues and need their parents to guide them. All of which goes to say, when kids do share their mainstreaming issues, parents need to be able to both listen and to brainstorm solutions. For some families of our research participants, the solution to school troubles was to add interpreting services to the IEP. In other cases, a change of schools was needed and sometimes that change was to a school for the deaf. One woman in our study described life after a transfer to the state school for the deaf: “I had more relationships, had challenging classes, had extracurricular activities, had everything that a normal high school kid could have. My self-esteem soared.” Another participant and his parents agreed to his skipping his senior year in high school and getting an early college start at the Rochester Institute of Technology, which has a large body of deaf students. This saved him from needing to suffer through another full year of isolation in his public school.

One woman, who gave many great examples of how she had to work double to prove herself, had parents who told her by word and example that it was not a problem to be deaf, but that the world might send her that message and therefore she would have to work harder and differently to get what she wanted in life. While her parents acknowledged the unfairness of this, they allowed no excuses for not doing the extra work. She took that message to heart and it has become a large part of her daily strategy:

Sometimes that means, making sure I read and study all the rules from the handbook/manual while my peers can randomly learn by eavesdropping conversations. Sometimes that means I must follow up a million times with my class/staff to remind them how Deaf I really am. Sometimes that means accepting how others may think I am a snob or rude since I can’t hear their “hellos.” Sometimes that means I have to kick my mother under the table to let her know I am not following the group discussion. So many “sometimes that means . . .” but I have accepted it as a part of my life. (F30S)

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