It Ain’t Necessarily So!

I was following a discussion on a Facebook group last night. A mother was asking whether mainstream schooling or support within a Deaf school or Deaf unit was better. It is an age old dilemma for parents of deaf kids. Some advised the mother to choose deaf schools or units so that her child could be around deaf kids, communicate easily, make friends and get the support that they require. Some advised the mother that mainstreaming is better and that exposure to hearing kids is good for development and speech. I fancy that at the end of the discussion the mothers dilemma was even greater because there was no clear consensus.

One of the responses that struck me went along the lines as follows:

” My Johnny is doing great in a mainstream school. He has heaps of hearing friends and is involved in everything. I asked him if he was happy and he said he was. He doesn’t really need signing, he is doing great .. “

Perhaps I am getting old, but I often read such comments with a great deal of skepticism.

I say ‘Old‘ because I realise things are very different now than from my time at school. Hell, I am 58 and when I left school cochlear implants had been around for about 5 years. Implantation in young kids was very rare then, it is not now. Virtually every deaf kid who can gets an implant these days. That isn’t a bad thing.

My observations are only anecdotal. I cant back them up with any research, but I am sure that there is plenty out there. What I see is that kids who were implanted early, many of them have great speech and great English language development. Not all of them. Some don’t respond well to implantation and you will need someone more qualified than me to explain why. However, what I do see is that many implanted kids have good English and great speech.

What I also see, despite the better speech and English language, is that they still often struggle in hearing settings. Particularly as they get older. Particularly as they begin to be ‘self directed’ and don’t have the support of a school or a visiting teacher. I have spoken to many of these young kids and, despite their good speech and language, they often tell me how frustrated that they are at school.

What it seems to come down to is that once they get into an environment where communication is not controlled, where all are talking at once, where there is a lot of background noise and where everything is spontaneous, these kids with implants become very frustrated and isolated.

Again, I point out that these are my anecdotal observations. However, as I stated, many of these kids find their way to the Deaf community later. They begin to learn Auslan, they begin to experience full inclusion where communication is not such a struggle. They begin to feel fully valued. For many, perhaps for the first time, socialising becomes fun and something to look forward to rather than hard work.

It probably isn’t a lot different from ‘successful oral people‘ of years gone by who later found their way to the Deaf community. Those people who were told that – ” … your speech is so good, no one will know that you are deaf.” What this backhanded kind of compliment tells them is – ‘Hearing Good, deaf Bad’ This is kind of stone age isn’t it? But that is the message that came through.

In my time I was told things like, ” Your hearing aid is so small, no one will ever know.” or “Grow your hair long and no one will ever see it.” The message is the same, ‘hearing Good, deaf Bad’ Cover it up, hide it and everyone will think you are are the SAME as them. That would be until the hearing aid started whistling. Cue everyone looking at you and pointing to their ears to let you know that your hearing aid is whistling. Talk about standing out!

If anyone had asked me back then if I was happy, I would have said yes. If anyone had asked me if I had friends, I would have said yes. But was I happy? A lot of the time, no! I was acutely aware of my difference and tried everything to hide it. Hell, it took me wagging school 14 days in a row before the school contacted my parents and people kinda twigged that perhaps all was not well.

And kids are cruel. Knowing I was a lipreader some would come up to me after school and mouth things like, “Are you a poof …?” No disrespect to lgbtqia+ friends and readers, but that’s what they did. I would look at them kind of blankly and they would all giggle and walk off slapping themselves on the back in acknowledgment of their own hilarity.

School in the mainstream was not fun. For me to openly say that I was not happy was to acknowledge my deafness. There was no way that I was doing that. As a kid, particularly as an adolescent, that is the last thing that you want to do. It can be tough, and while I am sure cochlear implants might have made this easier, the fact that a lot of young people with implants find their way to the Deaf community as they get older suggests that many of these issues probably still exist.

In 1996 I was employed as the Project Officer for the National Mental Health Education Project for Young Deaf People. I was able to research some of the social impacts of deafness on young deaf people. I came across many who were mainstreamed. Many socially struggled. I found that there were different types of young deaf individuals.

Those that sat on their own at lunch time. Those that chose a different friend every month. They would find a friend and smother them to death because it was easy to communicate with that person. Often times this ‘FRIEND’ would start to avoid them. So they would find another friend and the cycle would recommence. There were those who, in an effort to control communication and avoid having to listen, just spoke all the time, played the clown and spoke over others. AND – there were some that were well adapted and coped very well. Some could be any of the above mentioned at any given time.

The variations were stark. The impact on the self esteem and mental health of these young people could be severe indeed. I am pretty sure that many Deaf and hard of hearing people who read this will be triggered by what I am writing. I know that many took the pain of their younger years into adulthood. It took a lot of counselling and hard work to overcome the negative experience.

My own view is that it comes back to the fact that in these early days the message is, even if it is unconscious, ‘hearing Good, deaf Bad’. There is no value for deafness, no value for differentness. The consequence of this is that the young deaf person feels not valued unless they can show they can exist as a ‘HEARING’ person in a ‘HEARING’ world. It is that message, in my view, that does untold damage that can take years to repair and unpack.

I believe society can help by being loud and proud about being deaf. Let deaf kids meet other deaf kids. Let them socialise regularly. Value Deaf schools and units that support deaf kids. See them as viable options that add value to the education and development of deaf kids. The Deaf identity has a place, a very important place. The hearing world needs to value all of these things.

So your deaf kid says they are happy? Hopefully they are, but it ain’t necessarily so!


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