As a young man, yes I am becoming old, I met a man at the NSW Deaf Society. He was a counsellor and a small d deaf man. Whether he could sign at the time I can not remember but he probably had a smattering of signing. My signing was nothing to write home about at the time and many would say it still isn’t. Anyway the man, Graham was his name, was giving me some advice about employment and study options. This was 1983 just after I had finished high school. I had just spent three weeks chasing the skirt successfully in Queensland as a reward for completing my schooling.
In 1983 Graham still wore the old wire and box hearing aids. I, at the time, was still reluctant to wear any hearing aids. It was not cool, I was 18 and had a lot of growing up to do. We talked about this and that, being a Social Worker, being a teacher, how he had coped at university all the usual career stuff. I cant remember why, but he decided to call someone in Queensland about me. This was before the days of the NRS. He picked up the phone, dialed and put the ear-set part of the phone to his belt. What he was doing was putting the ear-set to the microphone of his box hearing aid that was attached to his belt. I was puzzled and amused at the time but he carried out a fluent conversation on the phone in this way.
This is not really what this article is about. But looking back Graham had great influence on me. Here was a guy that was using every means possible to him to communicate. He didn’t care how odd it looked or what was required, he just wanted to communicate. In later years when I became a deaf professional I was fortunate to come across Graham again.
At the time I was doing a research project. The project focused on identifying factors that impacted on the development of positive mental health in young deaf people. As I did the research I came across a brilliant concept that had been developed by Graham called The Communication Cycle. I have looked this up on the Internet to no avail so I will describe it from memory. Attribute this to Graham Weir.
One needs to imagine communication in the environment. Communication is happening all the time. People communicate to us directly, they ask questions, they tell us what happened to them through the day, they express happiness, sadness, teach us, praise us and the list goes on. All of this we take in and it contributes to what we learn, helps with our language development and overall understanding of the world.
Now sometimes we are involved in communication passively. We are just listening. ( Assume we are all hearing for the purpose of this.) In the back ground mum and dad are chatting or arguing. Brother and sister are gossiping and television is blaring the news out. Next door the neighbours are yelling at each other. At school we are listening to different people talk about a multitude of things. Driving places the radio is on talking about sex, drugs, sport or whatever. Perhaps at child care a child is playing in the sand and talking to him or herself in imaginary play and we hear this. At the dinner table the family chats away covering a multitude of topics. All day long we partake in this passive communication and it fills our brain with knowledge and language.
There are thousands of avenues of communication that we “overhear”. We then discuss what we have “overheard” with family and friends. The child will ask mum or dad what the man was talking about on the radio, what certain words mean, why, what for and so on. Things will be heard at school and shared, other people learn from these things. Concepts and ideas that are “overheard” are discussed and expanded on. In this way our knowledge and our language is constantly being developed in a cyclic way. It’s influenced by family, friends and the media. We are involved, listening and sharing and our brain is being filled. It’s a constant cycle of communication. It never stays still. It is always revolving and being shared. This, wholly from my memory, was the Communication Cycle that Graham described. He had charts for it that made it very clear. I can only hope that I have done it justice.
Now back to the deaf. If you are a young child who can not hear and has little access to communication, what does this mean in terms of the Communication Cycle? Given that the Communication Cycle is what constantly feeds our development what happens if you get a flat tyre, so to speak. How does this impact on the child’s development? Well clearly missing out on “overhearing” the myriad of things that go on around you means a lot of important learning and developmental opportunities are being missed.
The most obvious impact is that the child does not learn as much. Because the child does not learn as much the child does not mature at the same rate. How often do you hear that deaf children, and even adults are immature compared to their peers. This happens for a reason, it happens because the child simply does not have the same access to information and language as do hearing people, simply because they miss out on “overhearing.”
The deaf child at 15, not having been privy to conversations of their hearing peers about developing relationships with the opposite sex, about sex, about adult concepts and so on is often not yet ready to deal with these adult issues. They certainly feel them through their hormones but as for making sense of these issues, well that’s a different kettle of fish.
There is an old joke about a boy from a rural area who attended school in the city. His peers were talking about Jane having a f**k with Joe. the boy is reminiscing about the experience. “Hell” he says, “.. at 13 I thought a f**k was something my dad did when he hit his thumb with a hammer.” Mildly funny but a truism for many young deaf people who enter adolescence with often delayed language and concept development.
As part of my study into mental health and young deaf kids I observed some deaf kids in the school playground. These kids were mainstreamed into hearing schools. I noticed that there were five distinct types of students.
- The quiet withdrawn deaf kids. – They generally sat on their own in the playground. When asked why they would either shrug, cite being bullied, say their deafness embarrassed them or say that communication was too hard so they sit alone.
- The dominating deaf kids. – These deaf kids are the clowns. They do all the talking. They jump on people and make a lot of noise. They do this to control the situation. If they are the centre of attention and doing all the talking, presumably they feel in control. They don’t have or don’t want to hear or listen to others as this will highlight their deafness. The consequence is that they are seen as a pest or as having behavioural issues.
- The pretenders – These kids hang around the groups. They watch conversations. Laugh on cue. Nod their heads when everyone seems to be agreeing. Occasionally they add to the conversation and often their contribution is something way off topic. The group sees these people as annoying, sometimes bully them or simply tolerate them.
- The smotherers – These deaf kids find a VICTIM. The VICTIM is usually someone who they can lipread well or understand well. They follow this person everywhere. Badger this person for information about what is happening in the group. They rarely talk to anyone else except the VICTIM. What happens is the VICTIM often will get fed up and begin to avoid the deaf kid. When this happens the deaf kid will often seek another VICTIM.
- The well adapted – Fortunately there are some deaf kids who are very well adapted. They are confident communicators, clarify when necessary. Often they seek a smaller group of friends but have well adapted skills to ensure they get good access to information.
My observations were not happy viewing. Not surprisingly many deaf kids had huge issues with confidence and self esteem. Part of the problem is that many of these kids get very limited access to the Communication Cycle as described by Graham Weir. The conversations they have are often stilted and dependent on people meeting their specific communication needs. They do not have the same access to “overhearing” or access to the media. Many have literacy issues so that even access to print media is limited. The lack of access impacts on their knowledge, their social maturity, their academic achievement and ultimately their confidence. Long term it can lead to severe mental health issues such as depression.
It is depressing stuff and not for the light hearted. It is not rocket science what is happening yet still we, as a society, are obsessed with teaching kids to hear and speak. Now hearing and speaking are much needed skills, I wont deny that. Yet to me it is clear that for solid development a child needs access to the complex and never ending communication that is going on around them. Parents and professionals need to know what the Communication Cycle is and realise how important it is that deaf kids get access to it. Deaf kids are never going to hear everything so it is important that simple things like dinner conversations are structured to include the deaf kid and let them know what is going on. It is important that they realise that the media is a wealth of information. Captioned TV is a must. Taking time to explain whats been said on the radio, if it is on, can help immensely. These are all simple and effective strategies but really only touch on the surface as to what needs to be done.
Yes it is hard and complicated work, but so important for a deaf kids development. Hearing and speaking is just a small part of the equation. Access to information, ability to express and understand abstract concepts are another. Hearing and speaking are not enough. Families need help to establish dynamics that will facilitate their kids involvement. Sign language is not just a tool to help kids that don’t learn speech well but a language base for receiving and expressing information, often in a way that speech and hearing can not.
I guarantee that if you discuss the Communication Cycle with parents of deaf kids that most will not know what you are talking about. They will never have heard of it. They will not realise its importance. The mistake our society makes is to work with deaf kids in isolation, hoping that improved hearing and technology will miraculously facilitate everything. Hours spent learning to speak are hours spent outside of the Communication Cycle.
Support for deaf kids and their families needs to change radically and accessing the Communication Cycle is what it should be based on. How, doesnt matter, it is the access which is crucial.