As Social Workers and Social Work students, why do we advocate for food stamps and other welfare programs to help those in poverty, even when society tells us that the poor will only take advantage of these things? Why do we insist on exposing rape culture, even when everyone is shouting at us that those women “consented?” Why do we fight for racial equality, even when others insist that racism no longer exists? It is because we have worked and volunteered directly with these populations and we see the harm that is brought to them? We have experienced first-hand the need for welfare programs and the importance of fighting for equality. Most importantly, we have heard directly from these populations what they need, because they have told us, and we have witnessed their words to be true.
My name is Katie Parenti and I spend much of my free time in the Deaf community. Several members of my church are Deaf, I go to Deaf events, I recently started the American Sign Language (ASL) Club at my college, and I teach an ASL course for children. I have seen first-hand the importance of ASL for Deaf people. They love their Deaf world. I have had discussions with Deaf people about their childhoods. Many were forced not to use hand gestures or to wear hearing aids or cochlear implants. However, I can clearly see that ASL has far more advantages than speech therapy, hearing aids, or cochlear implants. Several Deaf people I have learned from have hearing parents.
Hearing parents with deaf children often avoid the use of gestures and signs with their deaf children because they feel that their children should learn to speak. Parents have a fear that once their child begins to rely on signing and gestures, he or she will never learn to speak. Certainly, this is a legitimate concern. However, it is important for parents to be educated on the positives of using ASL with their children. Research has shown that using ASL with deaf children actually encourages spoken language (Toth, 2009). In addition, deaf children who learn to sign later on in life lag far behind their peers on things such as language development, cognitive development, and theory of mind, which is the understanding that others have feelings and thoughts. Parents, disarmed by their lack of knowledge, often choose alternate routes, such as speech therapy, hearing aids, and/or cochlear implants. This article is, in no way, meant to put insult onto alternative options such as these; it is simply meant to educate individuals, namely Social Workers, with the knowledge that many hearing people lack.
In addition to the encouragement of spoken language, the use of ASL brings about many other advantages for any child, deaf or hearing. These advantages include, but are certainly not limited to: advances in cognitive learning skills, the success of hitting developmental milestones on time, unlimited ways of expressing one’s self, and entry into a community of Deaf people, complete with a rich culture. One thing that many hearing parents with deaf children fail to realize is that being deaf does not have to be a bad thing. In fact, it can be an extremely positive thing. My experience in the Deaf community tells me that Deaf people do not see themselves as having a disability. If anything, when in a room with Deaf people, I am the one with a disability because I am not fluent in ASL.
Studies show that deaf children who learn to sign at a later time in life lag far behind their Deaf and hearing peers in many areas of development. Theory of mind is the ability to realize that other individuals have thoughts and feelings. High scores on theory of mind tests suggest that a child is aware that other people have thoughts, feelings, emotions, and memories that influence their behavior. This, in a sense, could be viewed as the reason behind empathy and human compassion (Peterson, Wellman, & Liu, 2005). Peterson, Wellman, & Liu created a study which reveals that theory of mind scores for 9-10 years old deaf students who are late signers are at the same level as hearing students who are 4-5 years old. This is not due to an intellectual deficit that deaf individuals have. In fact, intelligence level is not affected by the ability to hear or not to hear. The lag in development is simply due to a lack of language, not a lack of hearing. This is proven when looking at Deaf students who are native signers, as they are on par with their hearing peers.
Although this article is not meant to insult the alternative options that hearing parents choose to use for their deaf children, I would like to simply discuss the repercussions that might come with using alternative options. According to Emily Walker, an ASL Interpreter, even the best lip reader only understands about 30% of the language that is being said to him or her. So many sounds look the same because so much of what a person says happens in the mouth. Letters such as “d,” “g,” and “h” make sounds that look exactly the same. This is the case with many different sounds in the English language and in other spoken languages as well. Children who begin in speech therapy very often take a long time to learn any language. This creates a lot of frustration for a child, as he or she cannot express his or her emotions, thoughts, feelings, wants, and desires. Imagine for just a moment that you become deaf at this very moment. Now imagine that you wish to travel to China and learn to speak Chinese. What do you feel your success rate would be? I challenge you to really think about and analyze your answer to this question.
In regards to hearing aids, these can often be helpful for children who are Hard-of-Hearing. However, they are often difficult to use with children who have a profound hearing loss. Hearing aids simply amplify noise and, therefore, background noise is also picked up. This makes it difficult for the child to hear what others are saying to him or her. With devices such as hearing aids, children often take their hearing aids off and hide them places. I have heard many stories about incidences such as this. Hearing aids can be uncomfortable for someone who has never used one, and many deaf children do not prefer them.
Many of the same problems come with cochlear implants. However, there is one more disadvantage that comes with cochlear implants. Cochlear implants are devices that are implanted into someone’s head. In fact, an individual must get brain surgery in order to have a cochlear implant. Certainly, this is a risky event for a child, especially as children’s brains are still in the process of rapid development.
The most important concept is for children to make their own decisions about things such as these. As adults, we often forget that children are human beings with thoughts, feelings, and valid opinions. This situation appears to be a sticky one. If a child cannot communicate, how can he or she decide what to do? This is why parents should teach their child to sign. The biggest issue that comes with teaching a child to sign is that parents often lag behind their child in learning the language. This is because children are programmed to pick up on language more quickly than adults are. Although this might sound like a huge issue, ASL still gives the child the gift of almost immediate communication. This communication is the most important thing a child can have. If a child can communicate, he or she can advocate for him or herself. In Social Work, advocacy is a huge priority. It is important that we let others make decisions about what they want. Policies that affect certain groups should always take the wants, needs, and opinions of individuals in that group into careful consideration.
Written by Katie Parenti
Peterson, C., Wellman, M., & Liu, D. (2005). Steps in Theory-of-Mind Development for Children with Deafness or Autism. Child Development, 76, 502-517. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00859.x
Toth, A. (2009). Bridge of Signs: Can Sign Language Empower Non-Deaf Children to Triumph Over Their Communication Disabilities? American Annals of the Deaf, 154, 85-95. doi: 10.1353/aad.0.0084
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