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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
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She is currently working toward her master’s degree while employed fulltime. During those years in college, she says, she did more self-exploration and soul searching than she had ever done before in her life. In the end she was able to stand up to what she knew she wanted to do, rather than giving in to others’ concepts of who she was. This woman was African American. Did that contribute to her struggle? Perhaps it did, because deaf students of color have it much harder than others, and their role models and “like-me” deaf peers are much harder to find. This makes the journey toward identity much harder as well.

Deaf Peers

By middle school, nearly all of our participants said they were increasingly lonely and a “school fog” was settling around their shoulders. They described this fog as a feeling of powerlessness and despair. Part of this fog was due to the daily experience of having conversation flow above, below, and around them each day without being a part of it. Part of it was due to the sheer boredom and frustration of being in the position of bystander, watching the same interpreter hour after hour, day after day, being powerless to change much of the situation. Part of it was the inevitability of comparing themselves with hearing peers, feeling increasingly inferior and not measuring up. Our participants said that by middle school, the pain of being the only deaf or hard of hearing kid in the school became unbearable, and they were desperate to find deaf peers.

Researchers have noted this need for middle-school students to find others like themselves. Tatum (1997) studied why African American students sit together in the cafeteria, and her descriptions of racial identity formation strike a familiar chord for those of us in the Deaf community. We can relate to her description of the natural process of craving to be in the company of others like us. Finding others like us helps us to define ourselves and to find a place of belonging. It completes the missing pieces. It makes us feel whole.

Hearing peers frequently had little, if any, important influence on our participants’ identity development, except in negative ways. Knowing other deaf peers, however, made a positive difference to the self-concept and resilience of our participants. Notably, it enhanced their ability to tolerate the loneliness of the school day. Additionally, once self-esteem was supported, deaf and hard of hearing students were in a much better position to be comfortable in their own skin and to embrace their identity, rather than hide it. Our participants learned that the self-confidence that results from feeling good about one’s self—embracing who you are, and not trying to be someone different—is a very attractive quality and pulls others in.

Horejes (2012) says this eloquently, describing the process by which he was (finally) able to integrate his identity in both Deaf and hearing worlds.

I started to embrace sign language as an integral component of my academic instruction, deaf cultural identity, and perception of normalcy. Sign language not only had an emotional and educational impact on me, but also gave me more leverage as a “normal” person. I was no longer struggling to adapt to the hearing society, but rather, by using sign language, I found avenues to enable the hearing society to adapt to me. My confidence soared and sign language became my “special” weapon, as if I were somehow equal in different ways (often personally feeling superior) to those hearing students. I also could feel that they looked at me as uniquely different in a positive way rather than deviant way. (2012, p. 34)
Many of our respondents mentioned the powerful, life-changing experience of attending deaf camps. That experience is so powerful that we have included a chapter specifically about the rich relationships and personal growth that developed from camps. Deaf camps are among the richest supports of identity development available to deaf and hard of hearing kids today, particularly those who are mainstreamed alone.

The Challenge of Forming a Healthy Identity in Mainstream Environments

Psychosocial mutuality and identity development in general are important to the understanding of the mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing student. Many of the participants in our research were well aware that they were viewed as “the deaf kid,” who was additionally often also viewed as a social reject and an outsider. Our participants said they were variably viewed (depending on person and circumstance) by their peers as “really smart” or “really dumb,” and much of that appraisal was based on communication competency. Of course communication competency most often meant speech competency, skills that are notoriously difficult for deaf kids to develop, no matter the effort they put into it. Many deaf children do not produce speech at the same level of competency as their hearing peers, yet that is the personal aspect of themselves that they are most frequently judged on. Self-esteem and confidence take quite a beating.

One of our participants actually begged a good friend of his to tell him what his classmates thought of him. His friend reluctantly told him that because of his speech, he was generally viewed as “a Down’s syndrome kid.” This statement hurt, but it wasn’t as devastating as he expected it to be, because all it really did was confirm what he had always suspected. He already knew he was an outcast. Fortunately for him, his small, semiprivate laboratory school was affiliated with a university teacher-training program and an interpreter training program (ITP); additionally, the university had 50 or so deaf undergraduate students. He started socializing with this group outside of school time. Meeting other deaf students and interpreters-in-training created opportunities for deep relationships, and these relationships carried him through the isolation of his daily school life. These deaf college students and the ITP students were able to support him and see him as he truly was.

Looking at this boy’s experience using the concept of psychosocial mutuality, what was happening? The view his peers had of him was a terrible mismatch to his own perception of self, but although it hurt, it did not surprise. He was able to dismiss their view of him by accepting that his voice was indeed odd and that these peers did not know him. More important, he was able to find a group of deaf peers (and hearing peers who signed) who confirmed his view of self. His view of self was greatly strengthened and he was able to withstand the negative views of his school peers. Indeed, Musselman, Mootilal, and MacKay (1996) found that when mainstreamed youth had deaf peers they were able to establish satisfactory relationships with both deaf and hearing peers. Having deaf peers seemed to serve as a protective buffer to self-esteem.

Our informants told us that, by and large, hearing peers did not get close enough to know them in anything more than superficial ways and thus they primarily went on first impressions and stereotypes. Deaf and hard of hearing students in mainstream schools are socially stigmatized. Reconciling that mostly negative view held by their peers (and sometimes teachers) with a positive view of self is a real challenge for adolescents, particularly as their self-image is often not so positive either. A lack of deaf role models and peers creates a void in their self-concept that deaf and hard of hearing children do not know how to fill. Their worlds are filled with others who are “not like me,” and they are hungry to meet others who are “like me.”


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