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The Affects of Deafness on Adolescent Development:

By Christina M. Poe

August 9, 2006

The Affects of Deafness on Adolescent Development

             Adolescence is a time of rapid physical, emotional, and mental development, which is occasionally complicated by the high school setting, increased responsibilities, and the desire to become an adult.  Researchers describe it as; "The period from approximately eleven to eighteen, can be seen as a ‘way of life' different from childhood to adulthood.  Problems of emancipation, independence, and freedom from the family occupy the early stage, while problems of social role and personal purpose within the wider world occupy the later stage.  Over the whole span of adolescence, the developmental task is to integrate earlier elements into a true sense of identity as a separate individual, no longer taking a partial or external view of self." (Schlesinger, 2000, pg.356)  The process tests even the "normal" teenager, but what is the process like for someone who can't hear?  Deaf children go through the same experiences as hearing children.  Does being deaf affect their development, ability to participate in school, or impact their relationship with their parents?  The answers to all these questions is a resounding yes, being deaf affects adolescent development, in mainstream settings, which are made more complicated in today's auditory/visual world versus, deaf adolescent development in Deaf settings.  "Deaf students face considerable challenges in developing interpersonal communication skills.  This presence of an auditory disability means that spoken language is largely inaccessible." (Akamatsu & Musselman, 1999, pg. 305)  This does not mean that deaf adolescents are dumb or slow; it only means that their deafness impacts their lives, especially in school, and in ways hearing people probably don't even realize.  

The word deaf literally means someone who can't hear.  This however is a broad generalized term.  "The level of hearing a person has is determined through hearing tests, to discover the amount of decimals of hearing lost at various sound cycles." (Spradley, 1987, pg. 42)  "In America about 80% of the population have some degree of hearing loss." (Akamatsu & Musselman, 1999, pg. 317)  Deaf people and doctors today use three broad categories to describe hearing loss; profoundly deaf, moderately deaf, and hard-of-hearing.  Each of these three categories can be broken down into even more specific and complex terms, but the three categories listed above are the general terms that are used most often, and are the terms that will be used in this paper.  It is important to note here that both profoundly deaf and moderately deaf students are and will remain unable to hear most -- all conversations that go on around them in school settings, even with a hearing-aid, based on the amount of hearing they have lost. "Sometimes I was treated like I was a normal hearing person, which can be good, but then I'd have to remind people that I can't hear well and they need to speak louder and clearer, and face-to-face so I can lip-read.  Otherwise, I won't be able to understand a conversation." (Punch & Hyde, 2005, pg. 3)

Our culture used to view deafness as a defect in the brain that left you unable to think, and so we used the term deaf and dumb to describe people who couldn't hear or talk.  This view is completely unorthodox and there is no scientific research anywhere to prove that deaf people are dumb.  Most deaf students are in fact quite smart; the only thing they struggle with is learning how to communicate.  "All of the existing research assumes that cognitive development in deaf children follows the same course as that found in hearing children, although the rate of development may differ, most of the differences are based on the fact that learning, comprehension, and cognition all require an understanding of language, and the understand of language is a struggle for some deaf children." (Clark, Marschark, & Karchmer, 2001, pg. 130)  From this statement it is fair to assume that deaf adolescent's development is affected because of their language barrier in a hearing world.

"In the mid-1980s, the Regular Education Initiative (REI) pushed for the mainstreaming concept, as set forth in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, even further by advocating that all disabled children both deaf and hard of hearing, be educated in their neighborhood public school as a simple matter of policy.  With full inclusion, there is no need for a separate special education system; in a socially just system, the regular classroom teacher must be the teacher for all children." (Oliva, 2004, pg. 10)  The experiences that have been recalled and recorded by researchers from deaf adolescents seem to show that inclusion may be good for the hearing students but it's not always good for the deaf student, some things just aren't good for all.

Some of the issues that deaf students face each and every day in the mainstream setting include; teachers who for some reason don't want to help a deaf child succeed and instead treat them as if they can hear, extra-curricular activities involving large groups and conversations, eating lunch with a group of "friends," not being able to hear the bell ring, making friends, and paying attention in class.  School is challenging, this is true, but if students can't hear and everyone around them can, their self-esteem, and motivation, will be affected.  A few high school deaf students said that sitting in class and any form of group activity were the two most frustrating experiences of their lives. 

The lunchroom was the most frustrating because of sitting at a table with about eight to fourteen other teens made understanding conversation impossible, turning up their hearing-aid only allowed them to hear all the chaos in the lunchroom and did nothing to make their "friends" voices more intelligible, and trying to lip-read what the others were saying left the deaf student with a headache.  "I was involved in several school activities and loved it.  But, with the involvement came a lot of stress, especially when it came to team bus rides, team meetings, and group lunches.  I would miss many of the jokes or secret whispers, it was impossible to follow all the chatter. (I would just sit very quiet and feel invisible.) Being involved was fun, but I never remember feeling included or like I belonged." (Sheridan, 2001, pg. 156)  "I didn't have friends in high school since I felt that people would be better off without me.  I felt like I was a burden to others, always asking them to repeat stuff, so I felt it wise to keep a distance." (Oliva, 2004, pg. 82) 

Daydreaming and doodling in class is a common confession of deaf high school students.  The reason for not paying attention is not because they don't want to know what is going on around them, but rather because many teachers tend to talk while writing on the blackboard or other "unfair" but normal classroom occurrences.  "My worst experience was with an eighth grade social studies teacher who would not give me a front seat because I had a last name beginning with T, I belonged in the back right corner, she said, and seating me in the front would ruin her beautiful alphabetical order.  Insisting that I needed a front seat so that I could see the board and hear was to no avail." (Oliva, 2004, pg. 43)  "It's dumbfounding to remember just sitting in classes' day-dreaming, reading the homework, or just being off in a daze somewhere.  When I actually tried to pay attention or understand what was going on around me I would quickly become overwhelmed, since it all sounded like "mumbo jumbo."  I probably had the classic "eyes glazed over" look every single day." (Oliva, 2004, pg. 68)

Educators are torn about the idea of mainstreaming.  On one hand it gives an opportunity for "normal" children and "special needs" children to learn how to work together and get along, which diminishes prejudices.  On the other hand there is the fact that mainstreaming is not in the best interests of deaf and hard of hearing children and, in fact, can be detrimental to their emotional as well as their academic well-being.  In an article titled "Inclusive Education and Personal Development" found in the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education from the summer of 1999; educators and researchers said that; "School experiences appear to influence feelings about oneself as a deaf person.  The experience can be positive or negative based on the support of the school environment.  While the general expectation is that one primary goal of adolescents is peer acceptance for which a considerable number have to struggle, the deafness dimension suggests that those in inclusive settings have to go an additional mile in establishing such relationships to ensure some modicum of success and minimize feelings of failure.  Communication difficulties, resiliency, and the extent to which educational settings support individual needs may have implications for the making and molding of identities.  Educators need to be aware of the school environment and how it affects deaf children."  In other words some adolescence will benefit from being included, but other won't, especially if the schools don't know how to help and support the children through the process.  "School personnel, classroom teachers, and guidance counselors need to be made aware of deaf students concern, and need for confidence in the area of career decision-making.  Deaf students need support and guidance to help them make informed decisions about career and education choices."  (Punch & Hyde, 2005, pg 18.)

The alternative to mainstreaming is exclusion, and special schools just for the deaf; places such as Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. and Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, Maryland are two examples.  The benefit to having special schools, is that deaf children will have opportunities to "talk" together using Sign Language, develop a stronger sense of personal identity, and be exposed to the opportunities and benefits that exist in the Deaf culture.  "Culture promises a great deal; it promises equity and opportunity.  If a community has its own language and its own culture, it could claim certain right and an interest in affairs having to do with deaf children and deaf adults.  It could realign the relationship of Deaf people to their schools and claim an interest in independent school curriculum." (Padden & Humphries, 2005, pg. 131.)  The Deaf culture is a strong and powerful part of most Deaf individuals lives, and in Deaf schools, children are taught about their rich "heritage," including people like Helen Keller, Thomas Gallaudet, Alexander Gram Bell, Heather Whitestone, Lynn Spradley, Dorothy Miles, and many others, that they might not learn about in a regular classroom.  "The idea of culture offers the possibility of separation and inclusion at the same time; they are included in the world of human communities that share long histories, durable languages, and common social practices.  Separation allows Deaf people to define political goals that may be distinct from other groups.  Inclusion allows Deaf people to work toward humanist goals that are common to other groups such as civil rights and access.  In this way, the idea of culture in not merely an academic abstraction, but very much a "lived" concept.  Culture provides a way for Deaf people to reimagine themselves not as unfinished hearing people, but as cultural and linguistic beings in a collective world with one another.  It gives them a reason for existing with others in a modern world." (Padden & Humphries, 2005, 161.) 

Many profoundly deaf and moderately deaf adolescence enjoy their deaf schools because it gives them a freedom to communicate that they would never have otherwise.  "Sign language is relevant because it is a supreme human achievement, accomplished over a long history that has accumulated in time and in people, the collective genius of countless human beings.  Deep in its structure are clues to the workings of the human brain and the wisdom of social groups that work together to make meaning and to find a purpose for living.  That Deaf people can preserve a language despite attempts to keep them apart from on another, and efforts to banish the use of the language from schools, is testimony to why Sign language exist in the first place -- as uniquely human inventions for the problem of how to transcend the individual and form social contact with others.  Sign language shows what humans can do if they do not hear speech, and they show what signers can do even if they hear speech: they make and use language.  We strive to make meaning in as many different ways and forms as we can.  To express is divine." (Padden & Humphries, 2005, pg. 76)  In Deaf schools students don't have to pretend to be "normal" and struggle to understand what is going on in class using only their lip-reading skills; instead they can be themselves and have access to language through signs.  "I remember when I entered Berkeley School for the Deaf, that I had trouble learning how to share a room with three other kids in a huge dormitory.  Now, I share a campus apartment with several other girls.  We plan our meals and shop for food together.  Our counselors have taught us important independent living skills.  The teachers and staff are wonderful! I have made many friends.  And I believe that deaf kids are just as smart as hearing kids and with sign language we can do anything." (Spradley, 1987, pg. 281)

Total exclusion can be just as harmful as total inclusion.  It has been reported that some Deaf people are so involved in their Deaf culture that they don't want anything to do with hearing people and view hearing people as inferior.  "Deaf people encompass a diverse group of people, unified by experience and a process of socialization.  If you want to be part of the Deaf world you must share in their experiences and go through a process of socialization or else you don't belong." (Padden & Humphries, 2005, pg. 160)  Being part of the Deaf culture in itself is not bad, but only being able to use Sign language and not knowing how to communicate in the hearing world can create a problem.  "Language offers us tools for thinking.  Having a word for a particular notion may make it easier to manipulate that notion in thought and relate it to other notions.  Deaf children lack some of the codified names and structures that come with conventional language.  Sign language can substitute and create conventional codes and add thought.  However, gesture systems cannot substitute for all of the codes and constructions found in conventional language, and then the deaf children may suffer the consequences, not only in communication, but also in nonlinguistic tasks.  For example, deaf children seem to have some difficulty adopting an accusative organization in communication, which means they will have more difficulty than hearing children in seeing patterns, associations, and categories in word groups and various types of activities." (Goldin-Meadow, 2003, pg. 227.) 

The problem then for deaf adolescents, who don't know how to lip-read or speak, becomes trying to get a job in a hearing world, while having to rely on writing notes and Sign language interpreters.  "That's why I haven't gotten a part-time job, because I don't really have too much confidence in my lip-reading skills, and it would just get awkward having to have customers and co-workers write notes and stuff." (Punch & Hyde, 2005, pg. 15)  Even hard-of-hearing students are concerned about being able to communicate effectively in part-time jobs.  "I really would like to work as nurse, but I worry if sometime a doctor said something and I didn't hear it and that it would be a matter of life and death, and that's really not safe.  I love the idea of helping people and would like to be a nurse.  But still, if I make a mistake in another career it's just money, you know, just money, I could try to pay it back and stuff, but if I made a mistake as a nurse it would mean, ohhh, I would feel guilty for life." (Punch & Hyde, 2005, pg. 16).

If mainstreaming doesn't work and exclusion doesn't work; how can we find a way to work with and help deaf adolescents?  Recently, researchers have begun to evaluate this question and one of the major results is the idea of Total Communication.  Total Communication is an educating method that relies on the deaf student learning how to lip-read, use Sign language, and speak as much as possible.  This method gives students the tools they will need to communicate in any setting, plus give them the option of being part of the Deaf culture, the hearing world, or both.  "Educators need to be aware that merely placing a deaf or hard-of-hearing child in a classroom will not necessarily be conducive to personal development without careful attention to the child who is "different."  Educators have to understand that school do make and mold identity, self-perceptions, and perspectives on life, although the passage of time and new experiences will reshape all these aspects.  If minimal attention is given to the social needs of the deaf or hard-of-hearing student who struggles to be included in interactive opportunities with hearing peers, social isolation is more likely.  Social support and interaction opportunities need to be programmed into educational planning.  Inclusion programs cannot ignore the deaf dimension, since it is part of the individual who has a hearing loss and therefore perceives the world through a somewhat different lens.  Even though the deaf dimension varies in saliency for each deaf person, schools would do well to ensure that teachers understand this personal perspective on deafness and the need to make meaningful social connections to others who are deaf or hearing.  It is desirable for teachers to structure interactive learning experiences that incorporate participation by deaf students in ways that foster a positive sense of self without singling them out as different in a negative sense.  Bringing deaf adults into the classroom whenever possible will enhance role model opportunities.  Above all the voices of those deaf and hard-of-hearing adults who have gone through inclusive and non-inclusive educational settings must be recognized.  These individuals should be viewed as desirable consultants in formulating school programs.  Educators who follow up on these recommendations will enhance positive personal development and identity formation in deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals." (Leigh, 1999, pg. 244.)  Schools are supposed to supply equal opportunities and the tools students need to survive in this world.  With deaf students that means teachers need to sometimes give them extra homework help, allowing them to sit near the front so they can lip-read better, making sure that they are able to successfully interact with their peers, and providing interpreters or speech therapy classes; this will help ensure that deaf adolescents will have the confidence they need to develop into who they want to be.

The other result from recent studies on deaf education is that it important for parents to be given information on all of the options for their child and allowed to make an educated decision based on what they think is best for their child.  Parents of deaf children will be crucial in providing a strong foundation for their child to be able to learn; if they want their child to learn to speak they will become the child's first speech therapists; if the child is to learn Sign language they will be the first to demonstrate the gestures and explain the meanings.  "Deafness.  How powerful this invisible handicap had become.  It sealed Lynn away from our words, from our thoughts, from everything we knew.  We would have to teach everything consciously.  Training.  That word was the key to Lynn's future." (Spradley, 1987, pg. 90)  This especially important since each deaf child is different and will require different things based on the amount of hearing they have lost.  "Deaf students are a relatively heterogeneous group of learners, and no single educational technique or approach will remove all academic or developmental hurdles.  It has been noted that deaf and students who have broader experiences in both academic and nonacademic areas, because their parents are more involved in their lives, tend to have a greater advantage in acquiring new information and skills." (Clark, Marschark, & Karchmer, 2001, pg. 83)

In conclusion, it can be said that being deaf affects adolescent development, in mainstream settings, and in Deaf settings.  Also, there is no "right" way or perfect solution to make deaf developmental issues disappear.  What is important is that researchers, educators, parents, and deaf students continue to strive towards a middle ground of Total Communication, combined with inclusion of the hearing world and the Deaf world together.  "While deaf and hard of hearing children are diverse, it is beneficial to recognize their similarities.  These similarities can pull us together, panethnically, as we move into the future with respect for our diversity and work together to continue to transcend or transform whatever barriers lie before us.  Exploring the experiences and perspectives of adolescents who are deaf will lead us to a deeper understanding of the developmental issues and tasks faced by deaf children and adolescents in their formative years." (Sheridan, 2001, pg. 228.)  If we all can pull together and learn to corporate, deaf adolescents will feel accepted and will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are important and can make an important contribution to society.  "For the sake of deaf adolescents, and future generations of deaf and hard-of-hearing children, parents and teachers must learn to see each child as unique, special, and whole.  Also, parents and teachers need to become more open to the value of the Deaf community and that Sign language is sometimes the only way a child will feel comfortable communicating.  Lastly, the Deaf community must become open to provide information to the hearing world so that we all can continue to try and make life for a deaf individual as successful and fulfilling as possible." (Oliva, 2004, pg. 184.)

It is my opinion after evaluating all of the research and information I could find on deafness that deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have a lot that they can offer and contribute to our society.  They are not dumb furthermore they are just as normal as anyone can be normal both in development and with life in general.  The best thing for deaf adolescents is to be given the opportunity for Total Communication; this will in my option, increase their confidence, social skills, and ability to be an active and included part of the world.  The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 12:12 "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many they form one body."  Basically what the verse is saying is that while there are many different types and kinds of people in this world, we are all part of this world and we need to learn to respect each person's uniqueness, since each one of us as something that we can teach or offer to each other.  Being deaf is only a handicap if you look at it as a handicap; it does however require extra patience and some work on the part of teachers, peers, and family to include (whether mainstreamed or not) and help deaf adolescents succeed.


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