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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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Closing Notes on Identity

In closing this chapter, we want to briefly discuss two other groups of deaf and hard of hearing youngsters who don’t so easily fit into the descriptions of those described in the previous pages. The first group consists of those students who attend schools for the deaf. Identity and self-concept issues surface there too, and we don’t want to leave the reader thinking all is rosy for students who attend those schools. For example, one of our focus group members who has taught ASL to deaf students shared this perspective:

A lot of my students at the Deaf school categorize “mainstreamed students” as “smart.” . . . I recall asking my ASL class (all Deaf students) last year to raise their hands if they thought of themselves as smart. None of them did but instead pointed at the mainstreamed students or the students with excellent English skills. It shows clearly how our obsession with trying to fit into the “hearing mold” defines how successful you will be in life—no matter how deeply they can discuss politics or the way the world works in ASL, good English determines if you’re smart. This saddens me—it’s evidence that Deaf education and our attitudes/perspective on how Deaf children should be educated are terribly flawed—and those attitudes are influencing the self-fulfilling prophecy that Deaf students have with their ability to succeed academically. (F28SE)
An interesting point of our respondent’s writing is how she identifies the hearing standard (which she calls the hearing “mold”) as being an issue not only for mainstream students, but for all deaf students (and, we add, deaf people of all ages). Even though being deaf is a core aspect of the identity of most deaf children at residential schools, and one most will tell you they feel proud of, they are still undeniably saying those who have good English skills (and speech skills) are smarter. We need to erase this misconception, which has the power of a stigma. Development of English skills has nothing to do with intelligence; rather, it has to do with having a solid foundation of a language model at a developing age, and that language does not have to be English. It could be anything—Senegalese, Chinese, or, yes, even ASL.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from those attending schools for the deaf are those deaf individuals who never find other deaf people. They never found others “like me” and are often not fully a part of a community. We looked at our survey respondents to find individuals who had not found deaf friends to learn more about that path. One of the survey respondents shared that he wished that his school had provided some sign classes in addition to the speech lessons he had, feeling it would have made a huge difference to his life today. He says, “Today I am a deaf person who is culturally hearing and I feel more alone now than I did as a child! Lip reading gets harder with age and signing ability is nearly nonexistent. I feel I have no communication methods with the deaf or hearing world.” Other respondents echoed that sobering message.

Our research participants have given us several important messages for building and maintaining a strong identity. We close this chapter by repeating the two strongest ones. The most powerful message was the need to find others like themselves. The importance of getting to meet and know other deaf and hard of hearing peers and adults was crucial and contributed to a sense of wholeness. Not only did finding others “like me” confirm their sense of being okay and stem some of the loneliness, but it also had such a positive effect on their self-esteem that it also paved the way to improved friendships with hearing peers.

A second strong message was that parents have a strong role in the identity process of their child. Parents need to be strong advocates in the educational process, making sure not only that academics are accessible, but also that access to extracurricular activities, clubs, and sports is there. Excelling in one area, not matter what that area is, is a strong boost to identity; however these activities cannot be based on some hearing ideal of the parents. Additionally, parents need to be able to bear difficult conversations with their sons and daughters. Attending school as a solitary deaf or hard of hearing student will inevitably be painful at times, and needing to hide and cover up this pain makes it much worse. Acting as if everything is okay is never good for self-esteem and identity. Therefore parents must be able to bear this pain with the child and try to find their way toward solutions. Almost equally important is having parents meet deaf and hard of hearing people, so that they have a concrete concept of what a deaf adult can be, and thus they can become less anxious and more confident about their child’s future.

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