One of the important keys to developing into a well-adjusted adult is identity formation during adolescence, and for deaf people (particularly those born to hearing parents) that involves progressing through the following stages: 1) Culturally Hearing, 2) Culturally Marginal, 3) Immersion in the Deaf World, and 4) Biculturalism. Adolescence is a trial at the best of times, as young people have to negotiate the complex soap opera of adolescent social lives and networks. Communication difficulties can be an enormous barrier to this development and even subtle communication difficulties can make this development extremely difficult.

Vitally, there is a world of difference between integration and belonging. This has been extensively examined in learning disability literature as “inclusion”, “integration”, “mainstreaming” and so on are pertinent to these groups as well. Students require a secondary education where they feel they belong, not where they are merely included and presumed to be “equal”.

Deaf education is a completely different environment from mainstreaming. I have observed deaf pupils in mainstream schools with TA/CSW support and am yet to see this effectively enable the student to take part in classes. The presence of support staff is always seen by the teacher/tutor as a solution to any problems there may be, and so they direct their attention solely to the hearing students, leaving the support staff to mop up any difficulties. This ghettoises the part of the room with the small huddle of deaf people and support staff. It also means the tutors believe they can progress at the usual pace and the deaf students are always consequently behind the rest of the class. In addition, complicated GCSE or A-level material is delivered to the student by support staff members who are not themselves qualified in those subjects. Students therefore are obliged to deal with not only their own ignorance of the subjects, but also that of their support staff.

The presence of support staff in a classroom can be as, if not more, disabling than the root hearing impairment. Hearing students are far less minded to attempt to socialise with deaf students who appear to require adult assistance to function. Even with that support removed during break times, secondary student relationships are built and adapted continually, not just in break times, and it would be impossible for a deaf student to even remotely catch up with or begin to be a part of those relationships outside of class time.

The available peer group for mainstreamed deaf students therefore is restricted to those other students supported by the unit, which has far fewer numbers, and far fewer possibilities for age- or gender-peer relationships. The likely trajectory for identity formation within this context is towards identifying oneself as peripheral/remedial hearing, rather than as avalued and competent deaf person.

In the UK and elsewhere there is very definitely a hearing culture and community, although for hearing people this is a hard idea to grasp; and similarly a strong Deaf culture and community. I worked for a long time offering therapy in BSL to deaf people with depression and anxiety, among other mental health difficulties, and they uniformly described the “hearing world” and “deaf world” as being worlds apart, and feeling as if they did not belong to either. As therapy progressed over the months and mental health problems resolved, so the sense of belonging to both worlds/communities increased, and indeed in BSL-space the two worlds were located closer and closer together. There is not an identifiable community or culture of hearing-impaired or deafened people and, being such a varied population anyway in terms of communication modality / assisted and unassisted audiometry and so on, where such a person feels they belong is very much up in the air. A positive self identity as any sort of person requires a sense of belonging, and a sense of self-worth, so a student needs to be placed within a group of people with whom they feel they belong and where the need for artificial assistance, be it via staff support or equipment, is as low as possible as those assistive interventions can also be socially disempowering or act as additional obstacles (as alluded to above re mainstream secondary education.)

I cannot stress enough the important distinction between belonging and inclusion.

Jim CromwellComment