DEX members are users of the deaf education system, and therefore, are “experts by experience” as well as by profession.
The term “Deaf identity” is often used in the Deaf community and is acknowledged by deaf adults as a good thing for deaf children to have. It must be hard for hearing people to grasp the importance of this concept, for a hearing cultural identity is acquired naturally from birth and is a major foundation for the psychological building blocks for children to develop their unique personal identities. Even before birth, hearing children hear and then learn the meaning of sounds, not only speech but environmental noise and even of silence. Belonging to a world of shared sounds makes for a common bond and allegiance, which every child must have in order to feel loved and valued. It is a basic human need, almost as important as water and food and the air we breathe. Research into identity development has found not having a sense of belonging can seriously damage children’s development, and it is a crucial human need to feel part of the family, school, friendships and the wider human society. This feeling of belonging leads us to become social animals and is the motivation for making relationships with our families and friends, and later, work colleagues. Language is one of the essential keys to cultural and personal identity. People construct their identities in the house of their language. Having a hearing identity, therefore, is paramount for hearing people, and yet it is an unspoken and intangible characteristic.
The urge to be the same as one’s family and peers is what drives all animals to survive, so deaf children are no different in this respect. This results in what DEX calls “think-hearing identity” where deaf children actually think they are hearing people (despite cochlear and titanium implants or hearing aids, and educational aids to hearing). Usually all the children and adults in the deaf child’s life are hearing people, so she or he wants to identify with them and model their behaviour on them. We have met deaf children who are upset when the term “hearing impaired” is explained to them, as they assumed that this meant “hearing”. Also, many deaf children who have a Deaf identity through childhood because they attend or attended Deaf schools, still think that they will be hearing people when they grow up because of insufficient Deaf role models in their lives. For those deaf children who are moved to a resourced school (unit base with other deaf children) because of being unable to cope in a lone placement in their local mainstream school, the transition from think-hearing identity to a Deaf identity can be extremely painful and deeply traumatic. For others, they seize this change with joy and want to learn BSL immediately, but may then have mixed feelings as they realise this is a long learning curve for them. Deaf identity development is a highly complex area that needs sensitivity and real understanding. DEX has both personal and professional knowledge of the problems arising from a lack of positive self-concept, and the legacy this can leave into adulthood, affecting relationships, further education and employment. Research shows 61% of deaf mainstreamed children have mental health problems, and many have an underlying depression that is not detected by medical experts. From anecdotal evidence and DEX’s review, it is known that many deaf children are being bullied. In addition, many are fearful of school, of not understanding the curriculum and homework instructions and of not being able to socialise or make genuine and lasting friendships.
For deaf children, much work is undertaken to encourage deaf children to fit into the hearing communities, and this is of importance in order that deaf children can have a feeling of belonging to their hearing families and make friendships. Deaf children are assessed on how they communicate in acoustically controlled settings which do not mirror their school’s group settings (i.e. classroom, gym, school hall, playground etc) and this gives a false assessment of their ability to hear in educational environments. The government’s philosophy of the assimilation of deaf children into mainstream schools and the drive for deaf children to have auditory aids in order to be integrated is a necessary part of the normalisation process. This is understandable and, in part, essential, in order that deaf children are socially included, but at the same time can never confer on deaf children a hearing identity, since we are not able to hear in the same way as hearing people can, so we are unable to fully share this experience.
The deaf mainstreaming philosophy, therefore, is not working. The danger of current mainstreaming practice is that deaf children are likely to feel that they do not belong to either the hearing world or the Deaf community as they have a think-hearing identity and so are in limbo and adrift. Often deaf children do not have access to a deaf peer group or Deaf educators, or have access to sign language.
The Deaf community is calling for Deaf schools to be reopened and maintained since most have had a good childhood whilst attending special schools, although the communication methods used in them were not always acceptable to ex-Deaf school pupils. Their common experience is one of belonging to a deaf community, with shared experiences of being Deaf which developed, for many, a strong Deaf identity, and without which many would not have coped in the hearing world. At the same time, many Deaf adults acknowledge that their education suffered because of the communication philosophies being used and because of the lack of resources in Deaf schools.
How is it possible to confer a Deaf identity on the vast majority of deaf children who go to their local school with no other deaf peers? In some cases there may be another deaf child in the same school but there could be too much of an age gap or a gender difference, or lack of real opportunity to meet, for a sense of shared experience to emerge. The answer is simple: it is not possible in the context of a local mainstream school without a significant deaf peer group. Some Support Services provide out-of-school clubs or occasional days of bringing together deaf children but this is insufficient for real and meaningful Deaf identity development.
For these reasons, DEX states that all deaf children should be bilingual, or multilingual, in spoken and sign languages. British Sign Language (BSL) is a natural language to deaf people in the UK, so all deaf children need to have exposure to it. This will enable bilingualism or multilingualism in spoken English and Welsh and BSL in order to have cultural pluralism and linguistic diversity. Bilingualism and multilingualism confer many benefits, some of which are divergent thinking, wider choice of employment, and biculturalism. Like any other language gives users a national identity, sign languages confer Deaf identity. For bilingualism to develop, children need exposure to two sets of fluent language users and language peers regularly. The current position is that most hearing professionals working with deaf children only have conversational level BSL, which is seriously preventing deaf children from accessing the national curriculum and developing dominant language skills, and would not be acceptable in any other language used in schools. At the same time, teachers and non-teaching staff are often dedicated, and struggle against a lack of government funding and skilled management, which hinders continuing professional development or the recruitment of suitably qualified staff.
Parents of deaf children often worry that they will lose their deaf child to the Deaf community. An essential requirement of parenting a deaf child is the full acceptance of their deaf child and should bring with it a sense of pride and value of the new skills family members can acquire, and the cognitive and cultural benefits achieved. In this way there is not a loss, but much to be gained.
The optimum way of enhancing a deaf child’s Deaf identity is to place all deaf children in bilingual resourced mainstream schools, and in bilingual Deaf schools with links to mainstream schools. This will enable biculturalism and bilingualism to develop for both deaf and hearing children in those schools.
Finally, DEX’s findings are that those who do go on to develop a Deaf identity later in life, however painful it was to make the transition from think-hearing identity, are stronger and more self-aware for this experience, as the benefits of bilingualism and biculturalism kick in.
DEX has collated anecdotal information from deaf ex-mainstreamers and also conducted our own Best Value Review, and a feasibility study into what services parents of deaf children and deaf young people would like to receive directly from Deaf professionals. Both studies are recorded in “Deaf Toolkit: Best Value Review of Deaf Children in Education, from Users’ Perspective” and “Handing on our Experience: Deaf participation with deaf young people and families”. For further information about the negative impact of think-hearing identity, see DEX’s book: “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: the deaf mainstream experience”. See Publication page.
DEX has a track record of training on Deaf identity development and Deaf culture to parents of deaf children, in a successful programme based on Scandinavian parents’ training, which is internationally acclaimed. 74% of the hearing parents we surveyed, plus a further group interviewed during our Best Value Review, stated they want information directly from Deaf professionals about being Deaf.
DEX also provides strategic planning and training for schools and Children’s Services, using our Performance Standards and Indicators, devised from user experience, research and legislation. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 /2010 and the Equality Act 2006/2011, calls for the involvement of disabled people in the planning of services, yet there is little recognition by service providers of their Equality Duty to involve DEX in reviewing their services for deaf children. Understanding the profound impact and legacy that think-hearing identity leaves on deaf children and adults is the key to understanding why DEX must be involved in making the necessary changes to deaf mainstream education at central and local government level.
Other recommended reading is on bilingualism, i.e. Colin Baker’s “A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism” (2000) Clevedon; Multilingual Matters.