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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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The lack of significant relationships with other deaf and hard of hearing adults and peers creates an interesting and unfair dilemma. How is it possible to understand and accept one’s self without integrating the deaf or hard of hearing aspect? How can I accept myself if I don’t also accept that I am deaf (or hard of hearing)? We don’t think it is possible, and we have a lot of support for this belief. Remember all those researchers mentioned previously who studied deaf identity? Irene W. Leigh, a psychologist who is deaf, wrote an entire book on identity as seen through a deaf lens. In speaking of mainstreamed youth, Leigh (2009) says, “The definition of social success becomes that of ‘making it’ with hearing peers.” Our interviews and surveys tell us that identity itself becomes based on “making it” with hearing peers, in both the academic and social environs of school. We learned that comparing one’s self to hearing peers rarely results in a positive outcome.

The “Hearing Standard”

One of our focus group members said this very clearly, “I had no positive Deaf role models. I had to compare myself to the hearing standard.” All of the members of her group understood this term immediately. She further explained for our benefit that what this meant for her was that she had to constantly work hard to participate in and do well enough in a variety of hearing-based activities such as speech, dance, and music. After years of doing this, as we see from this excerpt, she was both exhausted and lost in terms of identity.

When I was in the choir (4th grade or 5th grade), I didn’t really sing—I “mimicked” the songs. I would memorize the songs, and just mimic them without using my voice. I was in the back row—so that explains it. :) I truly think the music teacher and my mom had good intentions at heart, but it didn’t benefit me, and it just perpetuated the fact that my deafness didn’t exist or was locked somewhere in my treasure box never to be discovered. It also perpetuated the idea that I had to work hard to make up for something I “lacked,” and that became a theme for the rest of my life. It’s funny—now looking back, a lot of my upraising was auditory-based. I took piano lessons, joined the choir, played the saxophone, had a bat mitzvah (had to do an oral reading of the Torah), and played the drums. (F28W)
Participation in auditory-based activities such as dance, music, drama, and public speaking was so frequently mentioned, in fact, that it became something of a theme with our participants. It seemed as if participation in these activities allowed everyone to deny there was anything at all wrong with their ears. Looking back, our participants wondered why they were so often in activities that required hearing. They concluded that it was as if this proved something about being as close to, or as good as, hearing. These activities required an enormous amount of effort and work on their parts, and opting out of some of these activities sometimes meant an enormous letdown and disappointment for families and for themselves. It posed a conflict for them. They either continued in these activities, which became harder each year, with subsequent loss of self-esteem, or alternatively they quit the activities, resulting in feelings of disappointment and failure.

This is not to say that deaf and hard of hearing students should never be in music, dance, or other auditory-based activities. There are some deaf and hard of hearing individuals who love music. For some, these activities were seen as what got them through the day—one survey participant said “I wouldn’t be alive today without band. Sometimes it was the only reason to go to school.” However such activities need to be chosen by the student and not by others such as parents, and they should be chosen because they are truly enjoyed, and not because of trying to match a hearing ideal the student cannot meet.

Elementary School: Planting the Seeds of Identity Development

Identity development is typically seen as a task of adolescence, but of course the development of self occurs from birth to old age. A deaf or hard of hearing child is confronted with identity issues each step of the way. Most children begin to articulate some of these issues in elementary school. One of our focus group participants, a hard of hearing woman from a deaf family, reported a strong reaction to her first year of school and to meeting her hearing classmates. She pitied them because, unlike her, they could not sign. Even at 6 years old, she defined herself as a “signing person” and felt clearly superior to people who could not sign, even in an environment where she was clearly in the minority.

Although most young children may lack this clarity of self (e.g., a strong and clear concept of who they are), they don’t overly concern themselves with what other children think of them. They are simply content to be themselves. If only this clarity could last throughout one’s entire educational journey! What we have learned is that whereas elementary school was generally a positive experience for many of our informants, some deaf and hard of hearing children experienced considerable confusion during these years. One of our participants said that one of her most profound experiences from early elementary school was the day she realized she would “grow up and still be deaf.” She had an “aha!” moment the day an older man who often visited the school to share stories with the children showed up wearing a “huge monster of a” hearing aid.

Another participant, also hard of hearing with deaf parents, was placed in a classroom with hearing children while other deaf children were in a self-contained classroom in the same school. She remembers clearly her confusion and her envy that they had each other and she was “all alone.” She appreciates having her deaf family, but insists her school day was as much alone as any other deaf student in the mainstream. She and several of the other research participants who had deaf families somehow kept their school and family lives very separate and were not able to merge these disparate identities into a cohesive whole until they were much older. This same woman shared how on a school field trip to Washington, D.C., she was embarrassingly “outed” by a random encounter with a deaf man who recognized her and started a sign conversation. Suddenly her classmates saw her in a completely different light. This random encounter somehow became a trigger for more successful integration of her dual identities (hearing at school and deaf at home). Serendipitously, her classmates were seeing a part of her that she had long kept hidden, and she found, after her initial surprise and embarrassment, that she (and they) were quite okay with it. In fact, she experienced it as a relief.

Middle School and High School Identity Challenges

Our focus group participants overwhelmingly reported feeling lost, left out, frustrated, and sometimes depressed by the time they reached middle school. Middle school is a hard time for many children, but our focus group participants described this period of schooling as overwhelmingly difficult and as the “beginning of the end” of a positive school experience. School was no longer a friendly or even safe place to be. In middle school, they suddenly had to explain themselves to a multitude of strangers and few found much acceptance. Additionally, our participants had increased awareness of self and others, which was often painful.


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