Health & Well-being23rd April 2015

Isolating Deaf Youngsters From The Deaf Community Might Not Be In Their Best Interests

State of the art hearing aids and cochlear implants might not translate to mainstream achievements

by Sarah Lawrence

Born into a hearing family and brought up in mainstream education, neither my parents or the teachers for the Deaf, had any knowledge of the local Deaf community. In fact, in the same way that my ‘teacher for the deaf’ discouraged me from learning sign language, in many respects I was also advised not to have anything to do with the Deaf community.

Being strong willed and recognising that I was different to other children in the school (lots of them made sure I knew that), I went on to make my own mind up about what was best for me, my decisions differing markedly from what the ‘teacher of the deaf’ and social worker for the deaf, had suggested was in my best interest. Right or wrong, they were my decisions, and my life has been enriched by being involved in a wide range of deaf community groups and activities ever since.

Because of my links to and involvement in the Deaf community, I have developed my own identity in life, I have friends who understand the issues I face every day, who support me, and I have people who share the passion I have for reaching a stage when society concentrates on what we can do, rather than the simple fact we cannot hear and might not be able to talk.

Being a part of the Deaf community, I learned all about Deaf sport and Deaf activities, and getting involved has meant that I have travelled all over the UK and internationally to take part in sport. Through these travels I have learned about Deaf life in other countries and had the chance to meet people who greet me as a long lost friend when we meet up again.

It’s not all chocolates and roses of course, as people face a wide range of issues and Deaf Club or a Deaf social event is a good place to seek help and advice about how to tackle that. Overwhelmingly though, having a Deaf identity and being a part of a Deaf community has been a huge positive in my life, adding great value, and helping me make sense of many of the problems and barriers I experience in my life. I knew and still know today, that those problems and barriers are not personal attacks on me!

By now, a lot of you will be saying, “so what, we’ve heard it all before or experienced it ourselves, why bring it up again now.” I’ve brought it up now because of the changes taking place for Deaf youngsters, all aimed at giving children parity in the mainstream, but with outcomes that frequently fall short of that. In the last few months I have talked with numerous Deaf teenagers, Deaf youngsters and many parents of Deaf children in a wide range of situations.

As a Deaf signer trying to engage with these Deaf teenagers, who have the latest digital hearing aids or cochlear implants, there is no association at all with me as a Deaf woman. Many of them started to learn sign when very young, but were then discouraged from continuing, talking and oral communication seemingly being the only method of communication that is openly supported. If they are from a hearing family there is often no association with being Deaf at all - they are better than that it seems.

These youngsters have no involvement with the Deaf community and only rarely have Deaf friends. Sadly, equally rarely, they also have no or a small number of hearing friends as they are often seen by their peers as different, slow, or odd. Many of these youngsters suffer isolation and have no support network that helps them cope and understand what is going on, because they too have been encouraged to distance themselves from the Deaf community, the same as I was. They have no Deaf person around they can ask.

What is particularly difficult to stomach is the visible withdrawal from me by some of these teenagers because I am a Deaf signer. They react as though I am carrying a disease called BSL, and the last thing in the world they need, is to catch that disease. I have been walking towards some of these youngsters weeks and months after I have had that one conversation with them, and it is not uncommon for them to change direction or move to the side to avoid making eye contact with me. Am I really that bad? Is my love of signing something to be feared?

The people responsible for the development of this mindset and the resulting isolation might be well-meaning in respect of oralism and mainstreaming, but the outcomes can be quite upsetting and life limiting for the Deaf youngster. There are of course success stories where Deaf people are completely accepted into the mainstream, where they don’t hit a glass ceiling in respect of their job prospects, and where they are able to communicate effortlessly with people around them. The problem is, these examples are rare, with most Deaf people facing barriers of one kind or another throughout their lives.

My worry is that Deaf children and their families are being sold a pup when it comes to the advice many of them tell me they are getting from Teachers of the Deaf, social workers and other organisations set up to advise parents of Deaf children.

Through this isolating process, Deaf children are not meeting other Deaf children regularly and getting the peer support that provides. Many of these Deaf children are oblivious to the opportunities within Deaf Sport, Deaf Arts, Deaf events and other social occasions, all of which can be brilliant in raising self esteem, to achieve in an environment where they are competing on a level playing field. For the fastest, the strongest, and the most talented, there will still be opportunities to excel in the mainstream. Arguably, even greater opportunities because of the things people learn within the Deaf community.

People in responsible positions in respect of the decisions behind the current approach need to take account of the outcomes of the delivery of their policies. Where are the Deaf achievers and at what level are they operating? Is it being Deaf that stops them rising to the top, or is there something else? For those that fall on harder times because mainstreaming and isolation from the Deaf community didn’t work for them, how are they? What are their life prospects? How is their mental health?

Giving our Deaf children part or full hearing is a wonderful advancement in medical technology, but I question whether that alone will bring 'normality' to their lives, a life in the mainstream where they will be able to compete as equals for the best university places, the best jobs and the best opportunities. From what I see, current evidence suggests otherwise for the majority.

My key question, is whether anyone really cares.

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Deaf Lifestyle / Health & Well-being

23rd April 2015