Author: Katharine Edwards, M.A.T., Trinity University

To truly understand the Deaf community’s position in working with children who are hard of hearing or Deaf, you must understand the dynamics of the Deaf culture.  Deaf with a lowercase “d” refers to persons who are hard of hearing and who often “use speech and residual hearing to communicate instead of sign language” (Frasu, 2004, deaf section, bullet 2).  Deaf with a capital “D” refers to the culture with which certain individuals who are hard of hearing or deaf identify and of which they consider themselves members. 

In their essay “Educating Children Who are Hard of Hearing: Residential Life, ASL, and Deaf Culture,” Gilliam and Easterbrooks (1997) describe the Deaf culture as “…a group of individuals who have a common heritage (historical events, famous figures, art, literature, and scholarly organizations), a common language (American Sign Language [or other forms of sign language]), and a set of customs and values (cherishing Deaf children, expecting participation in cultural events, valuing the visual world, protecting one another)" (p. 2).  Although hearing impairments and deafness are low-incidence disabilities, a powerful culture has grown from their shared experiences and common language.  Deaf culture organizations can be found at regional, state, and national levels and provide a wide variety of experiences such as athletic events, community picnics, theatrical performances, Deaf religious congregations, and even a Deaf Miss America pageant that bring individuals in the Deaf community together (Orsi, 2001). 

People within the Deaf community do not view the absence of hearing as a disability.  Instead it is considered a difference—something that sets their culture apart from others and makes it stronger. “They are proud to be Deaf and feel that Deafness is a vital part of their identity, cherished as much as ethnicity, gender, and religious background” (Frasu, 2001, Deaf section, bullet 2).  Children with hearing parents do not have access to this culture unless they have contact with Deaf individuals in the community; however, children who are deaf or hearing impaired must use sign language to be incorporated into the Deaf community.  Baker and Baker (1997) suggest that “This membership is vital to Deaf children because it promotes a healthy view of who they are as human beings and increases self-esteem and confidence in their abilities to interact in a wide array of situations” (p. 3).

Members of the Deaf community believe that to fully integrate a child into the Deaf culture, there must be strong contacts within the Deaf community.  To attain and develop those contacts, members of the Deaf community suggest residential life schools (Marschark, Lang, & Albertini, 2002).  These schools help pass on the beliefs and history of the Deaf culture from generation to generation.  Students receive direct experiences with sign language and are shown how it is incorporated into every day life. Gilliam and Easterbrooks (1997) believe that residential schools place students “…on equal footing with their peers [where] communication is not a barrier to social life because students do not have to depend on an interpreter, enabling them to express themselves freely to their peers” (p. 2).   Deaf adults who have studied at a residential school find their experiences valuable and essential to their identification as a member of the Deaf culture.

As parents, it can be difficult to choose whether or not to send your child to a residential life school.  Deaf parents with children who are deaf or hard of hearing often opt to send their children to residential life schools because they believe this is a valuable “opportunity for their children to participate in the life of the Deaf community and culture.”  Yet, “…separation may cause feelings of guilt in the parents, confusion and homesickness in the child, and depression in both; but once the child has adjusted, he usually embraces the experience wholeheartedly” ((Gilliam & Easterbrooks, 1997, p. 3).  On the other hand, hearing parents have a more difficult time settling on a residential life school as the best placement for their child.  Most often their preference is for the child to share the oral world with family and friends.  Whether Deaf or hearing, most are hesitant to send their child away because of the impact of separation.  Although residential schools are a powerful tool for educating and integrating children into the Deaf culture, placement is still a difficult decision to make as a parent.

One of the main debates throughout Deaf history and one that parents must immediately address is the issue of language or the means of communication.  “While some endorse sign language as the natural method of communication and education for the deaf, others believe that deaf people should learn spoken and written language so they can be mainstreamed with the rest of society” (Public Broadcasting System, 2001, Deaf Culture/Deaf History section).  Parents must choose which form/s of communication (Sign Language, Auditory-Verbal, Cued Speech, Oral, or a combination of several tactics) they will teach their child.  Once they find a means of communication that works, they must practice and become fluent within the home and school.  If parents choose not to use sign language in the home, their child might not become fluent.  Without sign language, the child may be excluded from the Deaf culture (Gilliam & Easterbrooks, 1997, p. 3).  The parents’ decision then becomes more than a language issue, but a cultural issue as well.

With technological advances in medicine, other issues arise within the Deaf community.  Used to enhance hearing, cochlear implants have become a major subject of debate.  Many people within the Deaf culture do not agree with the use of cochlear implants and at times reject individuals who have them (Public Broadcasting System, 2001).  However, this technology has amazing capabilities that allow many people to hear things for the first time.  Although many in the Deaf culture discourage the procedure, some parents feel that the cochlear implant is the best solution for their child’s needs (Public Broadcasting System, 2001).