Educating the Deaf Child
The doctor returns the diagnosis: your child is deaf or significantly hard of hearing. Suddenly, your world becomes a whirlwind of audiologists, speech therapists, and hearing specialists. Decisions confront you regarding assistive listening devices, cochlear implant surgery, rehabilitation programs, and speechreading classes. A larger question looms as well: how will your child get the education he or she deserves?
Before you make snap decisions that could profoundly impact your child’s future: step back. Breathe. Though you may feel overwhelmed because you know almost nothing about deafness, you shouldn’t feel alone. Of the estimated 21 million Americans who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, 90% were born to parents with normal hearing, people like you who also experienced confusion, shock, a sense of loss, and even anger at this unexpected turn of events.
As a parent, you naturally want what is best for your child. It’s imperative, then, that you explore all the options, not simply the ones that seem most expedient or that are presented the most emphatically.
Understanding Perspectives on Deafness
Deafness is a complex issue, and people have differing viewpoints about it. If you only expose yourself to a single perception of deafness, you will be unnecessarily limiting your child’s options. Two major schools of thought are prevalent: the medical perspective, and the Deaf cultural perspective.
The Medical Perspective
Since a medical practitioner probably provided the first confirmation of your child’s deafness, it is likely that the medical, or pathological, perspective was presented first. In this mode of thinking, deafness is a disability to be mitigated, by whatever means possible. The ability to hear is “normal,” and deafness or hearing loss is a dysfunction that should be corrected. The majority “hearing” society reinforces this view with its labels for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing: disabled, hearing-impaired, handicapped. The focus of this perspective is on the ears that cannot hear, and on the steps to make the deaf child as “normal” as possible.
Deaf Cultural Perspective
A dramatically different perspective on hearing loss is found in the Deaf community. Deafness is not viewed as a disability, since a deaf person can communicate fully, receive a complete education, and live a normal, productive life. In the words of I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University (the world’s only liberal arts college for the Deaf), “Deaf people can do anything but hear.” Instead of being seen as “disabled,” your deaf child is viewed as a member of a community with its own language, historical heritage, and rich cultural traditions. In this perspective, parenting such a child is akin to adopting a son or daughter from another language and culture, and care should be taken to instill the child with a sense of pride in Deaf culture.
Though there are a great many choices regarding your deaf child’s education, most programs can be grouped into two main styles of education: 1) mainstreaming, or 2) residential programs. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and we will look at their pros and cons.
Mainstreaming programs seek to integrate the deaf child into a classroom or school populated by children from the hearing majority, using some combination of interpreters or deaf-only classes.
Children are likely to learn strategies for dealing with hearing people. Because they interact with the hearing so frequently, they will learn survival tactics for operating in the hearing world.
The children usually live at home with the parents rather than staying at a boarding school. A warning, however: this benefit can be a “con” if the parents have not learned to communicate effectively with their child!
Hearing school usually provide a great variety of academic classes. This stands to reason: the more students and teachers at a facility, the larger number of choices that become possible.
Self-contained classes do foster a kind of Deaf community. If there are significant numbers of deaf students, a microcosm of Deaf culture might be created at the school. If there are few or no other deaf students, however, interpreters will likely be used in place of self-contained classes for the deaf.
Childress may receive additional support. Interpreters, tutors who sign, note-takers, and other support staff might be provided for your child at a mainstream school.
Communication difficulty with hearing peers is an additional stressor on the child. At early ages, a child may become frustrated trying to understand teachers and other students and trying to be understood.
The inclusion of deaf students in a hearing classroom may slow down the instruction. If a teacher is constantly checking to see if they are being understood, the amount of information they can convey to the class might be reduced.
Deaf children can easily miss information. Many times a deaf child in a hearing class will miss out on information, whether this is because of interpreter error or simply for comments that are not interpreted, like remarks between students.
Lack of standardized qualifications for interpreters. Many hearing parents assume that the interpreters provided by the school are skilled and highly trained, but this may not be the case. Unlike medical, legal, and many other settings, there are NO current standards of qualification that must be met by educational interpreters.
Some classes are hearing-centric. Some required classes, like music, are geared for the hearing and have little relevance to a deaf child.
Children rarely taught pride in Deaf Culture. Because they are in an environment, which follows the medical perspective, deaf students are rarely taught to cherish their Deaf heritage and American Sign Language skills.
Lack of Deaf role models and friends. In a mainstream school with few deaf students, a deaf child will often have no similarly deaf friends. The interpreter might be the only other person in the school that uses sign language, and might become cast in the role of confidante to the student, which is a role conflict. Likewise, there may no be deaf adults for the student to use as role models.
Residential programs place the deaf child in a school specifically designed for the deaf and hard of hearing. Hearing children do not attend such schools, and the deaf children often live on-campus during the week, even in the lower elementary grades.
Deaf identity is promoted. The child’s personal identity and growth are developed more fully because complete communication is present and the student is immersed in a Deaf environment.
Psychological development is enhanced. A residential program sees the child as a whole person capable of the same achievements as hearing children. Programs that focus on the inability to hear can make the child less confident, more hesitant, and can erode self-worth.
Language abilities are improved. Emphasis and value is placed both on American Sign Language (ASL) and English. By first establishing full communication through ASL, it is vastly easier to then teach the child English. The child develops proficiency in both languages to a higher degree.
Easier access to their surroundings. Since the residential school is geared toward the deaf, things like school bells, telephones, and public address systems are adapted to fit their needs. These systems in hearing schools are often inaccessible to the deaf student.
Access to role models and mentors. With a large number of Deaf adults as teachers and administers, the student sees other Deaf people as successful, educated, and fully functional in society, rather than “disabled.”
Greater variety of extracurricular activities. Since students often reside at the school throughout the week, a large number of activities outside the classroom are made available to them, including sports, clubs, and social groups.
Allows time to socialize with deaf peers. The ability to socialize and interact easily with peers without communication barriers encourages proper social skills, self-esteem, and confidence.
Builds a lasting network of friends. After graduation from a residential program, students frequently keep in touch with their classmates, to a degree far surpassing the norms of their hearing counterparts. The friends and connections made in a residential program can last a lifetime and provide a sustaining network of support and encouragement.
Children are often separated from their family. Unless the family of the deaf student happens to live near a residential school (or is willing to relocate), the child is often apart from their parents for significant periods of time.
Residential programs are often found in remote places. Schools for the Deaf are frequently located away from urban centers, which may make relocation difficult for parents who want to be closer to their child.
Equipment is often outdated. Since residential programs often receive less funding than regular public schools, they must often cope with equipment that is behind the cutting edge.
Dormitory supervisors can have a high turnover rate. Dormitory supervisors care for the children when they are not in class. Because of inadequate funding, supervisor salaries are often quite low, resulting in a high turnover rate. Frequent staff changes mean that the supervisor may not know your child as personally as would be preferred.
No web article can or should be the sole basis for your decision about your child’s future. Before you choose the style of education best for your child, speak to a variety of people from both perspectives of deafness. Visit a mainstream program and a residential school. Speak with the teachers and learn how they view deafness. Talk to the students (take along an interpreter if necessary). Remember to consider whether an educational choice is better for your child or simply more convenient for you.
Do your homework, and you will find the educational choice that’s the best fit for you child.