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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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Middle school marks the time when children notice and care more about being “different” and not fitting in. For deaf and hard of hearing children, the conversational barriers become almost insurmountable because friendships and socialization increasingly occur in group settings rather than in play dates of one or two friends, where conversation is more easily accomplished. Again and again, our participants shared stories of dramatically increased isolation and exclusion, such as this: “In spite of my speech skill, I had a relatively normal social life until I was in seventh grade and moved to middle school. That’s when everything changed. Cliques were formed and I was left out. They weren’t interested in sign language or trying to communicate with me in sign language” (F29C). Participating in extracurricular activities and being smart seemed to help very little, as another informant shared:
I went on to middle school desperate to be popular, pretty, and have a lot of friends. I was the only deaf student in a student body of about 800. Most of them knew me as “that deaf girl with the interpreter lady.” I played soccer, basketball, and track. While I was on those teams, the girls were really nice and friendly with me, but after the season ended, they would barely acknowledge me in the halls (or they would ask to borrow some lunch money!). . . . By 8th grade I would spend my free periods holed up in the library reading and eating my lunch in the bathroom or the nurse’s office. I hated sitting alone because EVERYBODY knew why I was sitting alone. For group projects, either they wouldn’t like being paired up with “the deaf girl and her interpreter” OR they knew I was smart/paid attention and knew I would get a good grade in our project, resulting in me doing a lot/most of the work. (F30NW)
These vignettes illustrate the difficulties deaf and hard of hearing preteens and teens face in school on a daily basis. There was a clear line between social acceptance in elementary school and middle school that our focus group members, in spite of their intelligence, determination, and involved parents, simply could not cross. Instead, they became increasingly isolated and cut off from the daily social milieu, which is, as we know, actually the essence of middle and high school.

Amazingly, being involved in sports and extracurricular activities helped very little, and this is something many adults involved with deaf and hard of hearing youth do not realize. Often when researchers study deaf and hard of hearing students, the number of extracurricular activities one is involved in is said to measure the quality of their school experience and success in the mainstream. Students with more activities are viewed as more successful and happy. Our focus group participants say this is not so.

It is initially satisfying to make the varsity team or to participate in band, and it definitely fills up what would be many lonely hours, but there is a distinct downside. Our focus group members talked about the loneliness of being part of such activities while still being excluded. The rides on the bus provoked particularly poignant memories. Being in a group, but not part of a group was especially painful for many. In the years looking back, many of them even ask if they were allowed to join clubs or teams not because of their qualifications, but to “give the deaf kid a chance.” Being a token, whether it is for real or not, sits badly on one’s shoulders. Our participants shared with us that it often felt better to decline to be on a team, rather than to participate in the off-the-field milieu as bystanders.

Of course there were exceptions. A few individuals lived for the game and told us they did not care that they were missing out on social chat and friendships. These individuals were true athletes, dedicated to the game, and generally had the respect of their teammates (note the word respect, not necessarily comradeship) and supportive coaches. And for some reason, these individuals apparently had less of a need for social connections, perhaps because they had these needs met elsewhere, or perhaps because of character differences. However all of these individuals also acknowledged that if they had been able to participate in conversations, their experiences in team sports would have been significantly enhanced.

Many of our focus group participants mentioned being aware by middle school that their childhood friends were having issues of their own. The elementary friendships were often still there but they were relegated to occasional arrangements outside of the school environment. Our participants ruefully recognized and accepted their friends’ struggles to fit in, to make new friends, and to “be cool.” Clearly, having a deaf friend in the middle school and high school environments was not cool.

During middle school, identity issues began to surface for our focus group participants. It did not matter if their families were deaf or hearing. They all seemed to struggle with feeling confident and proud of whom they were as deaf or hard of hearing individuals and more often than not, they wanted to hide this aspect of their identity while at school. Our focus group members were variously skilled at this subterfuge, and much of that depended on their level of hearing. Hard of hearing students were more successful than profoundly deaf students; however, that is not to say the latter did not try to conceal their difference. One informant explained her feelings in this way:

As I made my way through middle school/junior high school, the boys started to pick on me because my voice didn’t sound like the others. I remember feeling so awkward and not knowing my place as I started to feel different from everyone else. I was always the last to be picked for any sport activities. I started to feel ashamed of my deafness—I wanted to be like everyone else—I would refuse to wear my hair in a ponytail for the fear that people would notice my hearing aids. (F34SE)
Another informant found both social life and the classroom intolerable. As coping strategies failed and loneliness increased, he resorted to distractions and fantasy. In the 1960s, Linda used to spend her days in school writing reams of nonsense in notebooks, counting the minutes till the day was done. It seems not much has changed in the years between. These are our informant’s words:
Life became difficult the first day of entering 7th grade when I was mainstreamed. I was the only Deaf person and I never knew how to deal with that. I tried hard to fit in. I begged my mom to buy me these expensive clothes that everyone was wearing. I joined chess but later learned that was a geek club. I cracked jokes whenever I saw an appropriate place to do so. I realized nothing could change the ignorance of my classmates overnight. I started eating more, sleeping in class more because it was boring as hell to watch the same interpreter all day long, and I most of all I started to have a new friend that was not a human being.

My new friend eventually became my best friend and got me through each day throughout my years in the mainstream. Most times I felt my best friend was too slow but still managed to help me get through the day by counting the minutes before I could go home. My best friend was the clock in each class[room]. (M34C)

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