Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Culture and Communities

My 11 year old son has only become deaf over the last two years, the result of a neurological condition. He has good vocabulary, great speech and rounded communication skills following 10 years of growing up in the hearing world. His reception method is primarily speechreading, supported by some residual hearing. (His deafness is Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder – which for him particularly impacts speech perception).

Some professionals are recommending that he fully embraces Total Communication, becomes more integrated with Deaf peers and in particular learns British Sign Language. I am not sure. He has no experience of signing (other than basic alphabet), and has a preferred an oral/aural approach. I want to help him learn more about Deaf culture, but I’m keen that we take advantage of his 10 years of open communication to make sure that he doesn’t lose the ‘advantage’ he’s had.

Is anyone aware of any research on “late” presenting deafness in children, and the pluses and minuses of investing in BSL at this age.

Question from S.M., London. Posted October 21, 2013.
Response from Ruth Swanwick - University of Leeds

It might be useful to separate out the two issues in this questions, that of diversity of language support and Deaf culture.

In terms of the language issue, the first thing to stress is that  there are no ‘minuses’ of learning some BSL or Sign-Supported English (SSE)  at any age. Nothing will be lost; there can only be gains if you opt for this type of environment.  Your son may find BSL useful for learning or for socialising at some point (or a bit of both)  or, more likely, find that  SSE is a useful mediating  tool for mixed deaf and hearing interactions and some support for listening and also literacy development (now or in the future). In either case, learning BSL and meeting and learning with other deaf children will be supportive and will not  change his spoken language trajectory, only add  a layer of support.  Most children that he meets will probably also be using a mix of sign and spoken language for different purposes at  different times and you will find in any TC setting that this flexibility  is normal and  expected and managed by the hearing and deaf adults.

With regard to the other question, about Deaf culture,  entering into some sort of TC environment  will immediately offer your son  access to diverse deaf children and adults. In itself this will extend his understanding  of deafness  as he sees other ways of being and interacting in an environment where deaf and hearing  children and adult rub along together. This is perhaps a more natural way to  engage with Deaf community and culture which is entirely contextualised and nowhere near as overwhelming as seeing Deaf culture as a very separate land.

Given, as you say,  the advantage that your son has had, I would suggest that keeping his communication options open would be linguistically and culturally positive and enriching if this would sit comfortably with family routines, practices and  preferences.

Our daughter is 11 years old and has been educated in a mainstream setting since the age of 6years. Her first language is New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) although she prefers to use spoken English with some people. Her peers have developed NZSL to conversational level over the years that they have been in the same class.

We are a bicultural/bilingual family with 2 of us hearing (fluent in NZSL) and 2 Deaf. We put a lot of effort into maintaining links to the Deaf community and attend events at Deaf club, however this is not enough. Our daughter has been struggling for the past year particularly in the area of friendships. She prefers to play games that are predictable and physical (i.e., swinging on the bars, and her ‘friends’ have moved on and prefer to sit on the bank and talk! it breaks my when she comes home in tears asking why isn’t there more Deaf children at school and why do the girls just want to talk.. How can we develop resilience in our daughter.

Question from O.F, New Zealand. Posted September 26, 2012.

Yes, being 11 years and preadolescent is tough. Girls are transitioning to a different kind of socialization and talking with each other is really very typical at that age. You say that your daughter prefers to play games that are predictable and physical. If there are organized sports activities that you could enroll her in, that might be helpful. Another possibility is to invite one girl at a time over regularly to be with your daughter and do different things with her. If she has at least one good friend, this will help a bit in getting her through the tough spots.

If there are deaf girls close in age to your daughter in the deaf community, try to connect your daughter with them. Above all, be there for her, tell her you are proud of her, she is special, and you understand what she is going through. That will help her to develop resilience, knowing you care for her and you are there for her, and the two of you can communicate feelings. Here’s hoping the tough times won’t happen too often…..

I am an SLP and I have a student with bilateral cochlear implants. He is 15 now and received his 1st implant at age 3 and his 2nd implant at age 13. In his world, he has always been the only hearing impaired person. Do you have any suggestions for educating him and exposing him to deaf culture?

Question from N.W., New York. Posted December 1, 2011.

If he is comfortable with his current identity and the purpose of exposing him to deaf culture is to give him an expanded sense of his identity then you could have him skim through Jack Gannon’s publication of Deaf Heritage  ( NAD, 1980. Silver Spring, MD).  This would give him a historical sense of community, culture, and communication issues that help him relate to the experience of being deaf.

If he uses sign language (or wants to), identifying a mentor who could take him to a deaf sponsored social event could be beneficial.  Or, there may be a cochlear implant group the meets in his local area that may be of interest (yes, many kids with implants also sign).  Also, depending on his school environment there may be a course offerings there (or at a local community college) concerning the deaf experience that would help him explore his a sense of personal and/or cultural identity.

More importantly,  his comfort with self, his curiosity about the deaf experience, and what intrinsically motivates him at the current time to learn about what it means, for him, to be deaf may  involve a process of  self-determining what, if anything, he is ready to explore at the present time about his lived experiences.

When working with deaf students from hearing families without a lot of signing skills, what do you suggest for imparting proper social behavior and emotional stability for interpreters? The students seem to look to the interpreters as substitute parents or as friends. Sometimes they come from broken and/or poor families.

Question from J.K., Pennsylvania. Posted June 7, 2011.

One of the important concepts for the educational team serving deaf and hard-of-hearing studentsin inclusive settings is that the primary ‘client’ in this setting is the teacher, and NOT the student.  That being said, it is imperative that the interpreter develop a relationship with the child, much like ANY educator in a classroom setting would develop.   This, however, is NOT in leu of the relationship the educator must ALSO develop with his or her deaf student.  The educational interpreter is only one adult professional in the inclusive setting.    The regular educator, the guidance counselor, the itinerant teacher, the speech-language pathologist, and the educational interpreter not only have educational-literacy goals for this ‘included’ child/student, but also *must* work as a team providing the social-literacy opportunity and support needed for the D/deaf child to become an active and healthy participant (versus depository) in the classroom community.    Behavioral and communication guidelines need to be clearly charted during the IEP meeting and shared with all professional staff, the student, and the student’s primary care giver(s).

I am doing research on the effects of teaching a deaf child to speak and how it plays into their personal lives and on to the deaf community. As an interpreter I have noticed that my oral clients tend add new signs that are not ASL. I feel like all people should have the choice to be involved in the Deaf and/or hearing community. How do you think speech effects their identity and the identity of the deaf community?

Question from Abigale, Boston. Posted April 12, 2010.

With regard to the creation of new signs and, I suspect, your concern about the use of initialized signs, you might want to take a look at linguistics resources. Contrary to claims, there does not appear to be any negative evidence concerning the use of initialized signs. “Signs that are not ASL” are used by deaf people all the time; that is part of the ongoing evolution of language.

Concerning the relation of speech and identity, a variety of books have been written on the subject, usually by deaf people more invested in being part of the hearing community than the Deaf community. With regard to the evidence base, let me offer two suggestions: Most generally, you might look at Irene Leigh’s new book A Lens on Deaf Identities, Oxford, (2009).  Specifically with regard to children, try Most, T. (2007).  Speech Intelligibility, Loneliness, and Sense of Coherence Among Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children in Individual Inclusion and Group Inclusion. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12, 495-503.

I am interesed in adopting a 10 year old girl that is deaf. I have had some experience with sign language. I would like to communicate with parents that have children like her so that I can be more informed and other issues that I might experience. Is there a book of signing that anyone might recommend for me?

Question from Judith H., Somewhere USA. Posted February 9, 2010.

I have contacted several parent groups, and both Hands & Voices and the American Society for Deaf Children (see Partners page) have urged you to get in touch with them. They have a number of parents who were in your situation, and they would be happy to share. [Separately, I will send you e-mail addresses of individuals who have adopted deaf children themselves.] With regard to learning to sign, these organizations, sign language experts, and I all urge you not to depend on books or related material. Learning to sign is just like learning any other language, and it is neither as quick nor easy as many people expect. There are some good DVDs out there, and the (expensive) “Bravo! ASL” series was highly recommended, but face-to-face sign language lessons are essential. And not all sign language programs are created equal. Your best bet is likely a local university or community college. If you let us know where you live, we may be able to make specific recommendations.

My son who is 7 months old was born with profound hearing loss. He currently wears hearing aids and is a cochlear implant candidate. I am unsure how the deaf community feels about this surgery and also if he will be able to be involved in contact sports growing up?

Question from Gabrielle K., NY. Posted October 26, 2009.

Many people in the deaf community have mixed feelings about pediatric cochlear implants.  Some continue to feel quite strongly that parents should not make such a major decision without giving the child an opportunity to have some say in the matter.  Of course, this means waiting for quite a while.  Others, though, recognize that parents have a legal and moral right to make informed decisions about what is best for their child.  It is safe to say that, whatever your decision regarding implantation is, there will be some support from people in the deaf community for your decision if you discuss it with them, and there is likely to be some opposition as well.  It is also probably safe to say that this opposition will not be as pronounced as it would have been a decade ago, however.

A cochlear implant does not turn a deaf child into a hearing child.  Many children with implants will need support services over the years, especially in school, and many will learn to sign and will interact with other deaf and hard-of-hearing children.  A child with a cochlear implant will be welcome into the deaf community if the child is comfortable using sign language.  For additional information about these issues, you might find our book, Cochlear Implants in Children: Ethics and Choices (Gallaudet University Press, 2005), to be of interest.

As far as contact sports are concerned, this is something that you should discuss with your cochlear implant surgeon.  One of us (John) has had an implant for several years, and the idea of butting heads on a football field or even playing soccer is not something he would recommend (even after taking off the external part of the implant).  On the other hand, bicycle riding is fine, although a helmet can’t easily be worn with an implant (in this case a hearing aid on the non-implanted ear, if there is one, would be a good idea).  Swimming, with the external part of the implant taken off, is fine.  For sports like tennis or basketball, the external part of the implant could still be used as long as a sweat band covers it to prevent it from falling off (although, for basketball, a sharp elbow that lands on the implant is not likely to be pleasant, and could easily damage the external part of the device.

We are thinking of getting our deaf 10-month-old a cochlear implant, but I have read on several online blogs that our child will be ostracized by the Deaf community. I don’t think that’s a problem because with the CI she will be mostly hearing, but what if later on our daughter wants to interact with other deaf people do you think that they will not accept her because of the CI?

Question from Heather P., Sarnia, Ontario. Posted May 11, 2009.

Since you didn’t ask, I won’t address your point about her being “mostly hearing.” I should point out that the evidence is not yet in on the extent to which children with cochlear implants generally are socially integrated with hearing peers. There are anecdotes covering the full range of possibilities, but data are hard to come by.

With regard to interacting with Deaf people (the capital D indicating those who see themselves as part of a linguistic-cultural minority), two points: First, by the time “later” arrives, cochlear implants will be so common that it will not be an issue. Second, even now, the Deaf community is far less scandalized by cochlear implants than they were 10 years ago. Many Deaf adults are now getting cochlear implants themselves as well as for their children. With the surgery now far less risky than it used to be, insurance companies (and socialized medicine in other countries) covering the costs of cochlear implantation, and the wealth of evidence indicating that most deaf children to write some benefit from cochlear implants, they’re coming to be seen much more as just high-tech hearing aids.

It’s true that there is still strong opinion out there on blogs although, interestingly, much of it is coming from hearing people, not Deaf people themselves. The first priority is your child’s personal and academic success. You might want to get in touch with the parents of some older kids who have had their cochlear implants for a fairly long time and get their perspective (see our Partners page), but my experience is that the Deaf community is welcoming and very comfortable with diversity.

My husband and I are hearing, and we have a deaf son who attends the nearby local deaf school (he doesn’t stay there overnight). Recently one of the other parents from the school told us that our son isn’t Deaf, he’s deaf. I don’t have any idea what she’s talking about. What is Deaf vs. deaf?

Question from Kitty B., Scranton, PA. Posted May 11, 2009.

Most commonly, deaf refers generally to the audiological condition of having a hearing loss significant enough to disrupt the use of spoken language for day-to-day activities. Deaf is used to refer to people who see themselves as part of a community bound together by historical successes and challenges and a common language, whether it be ASL, British Sign Language (BSL), Croatian Sign Language (Hrvatski Znakovni Jezik or HZJ), or Australian Sign Language (Auslan). References both to the Deaf community and to Deaf culture thus are typically written in the capitalized form. The Deaf community also has a rich history including art, humor, and literature in addition to sharing most of those enjoyed by hearing people. In this sense, it offers the same kind of cultural diversity available in the United States to African-American, Hispanic, or Jewish families who can appreciate both mainstream American culture and a link to a special heritage. Many deaf people thus do not consider themselves Deaf.

My daughter is deaf (13 years old) and I want her to learn about “deaf culture” but I don’t have the first clue how to find another deaf person for her to interact with let alone how to communicate with that person. What do you suggest?

Question from Michael M., Greensboro, NC. Posted May 11, 2009.

You’re lucky, you live in a city with some good resources. At least when I lived there, Greensboro had the Guilford County Communication Center for the Deaf, which was a good resource for people like you (try the county government pages of the telephone book). For those who live in a city or county without such a resource, another possibility is a local community college or other program where people go to learn American Sign Language (like UNC Greensboro). That would be a starting place to find out who and what is available. Visiting a Deaf club might be suggested, but I think that might be a little much to start. A better beginning place would be your child’s school, the school district office, or city/county social services. Another possibility is to contact one of the three parent organizations in the U.S. to see if if one has a chapter near you (see our Partners page). That would not only be a benefit to your daughter, but you would have an opportunity to meet other parents of deaf kids and be able to share information, concerns, and ideas.