Understanding Deaf parents with hearing children

Abstract review of a paper by Mary T. Weiner Ph.D., presented at the second international conference on disabled parenting, California (2002).

Unique family themes merge when two linguistic and cultural worlds meet as result of parents’ deafness and their children’s ability to hear and speak. To provide appropriate services to deaf parents and their families, professionals need to become more aware of this unique population and its family dynamics. Weiner first explores those family themes. She starts from the ‘bad old days’ when there was very little research on deaf families with hearing children. It was also a time when there was a lack of qualified interpreters, no telephone relay operators, no captioned television and sign language was looked upon as a broken language. Wanting to avoid the problems that arose when deafness was something to be ashamed of, deaf parents like all parents want what is best for their children.

Weiner explores the background fully, with full demographic data of deaf people. Eighty-eight percent of children born to deaf parents are hearing (Rayson, 1987). The different dynamics of families where deaf children are in deaf families, or hearing parents with deaf children are explained. This is important in understanding the life experience of deaf parents of hearing children.

There are few studies of this family scenario, but some research shows that deaf parents have above average parenting success and today deaf parents are very aware of the danger of depending too much on their children (Jones, Strom & Daniels, 1989).

Weiner illustrates her paper with a real life example of how communication difficulties can arise, and offers suggestions for avoiding such misunderstandings:

Jessica and David were asked to meet their daughter, Andrea’s, teacher. They called the school, two weeks before, to ask for a sign language interpreter to be there. At the meeting they realised that the interpreter was unqualified. He kept misunderstanding and misinterpreting what they were trying to say to the teacher. Jessica and David were anxious to give a good impression, but felt that because of the interpreter’s incompetence, it was not possible. They were afraid that the teacher would think they were uneducated. They were also anxious to know why the teacher wanted to meet them. From what they managed to understand, she was concerned about Andrea’s language development. David and Jessica knew that bilingual children sometimes have problems with the language that is less used at home. The teacher suspected that the interpreter was having a hard time, as she did not understand what the parents were trying to say. How could this problem be avoided? How could the teacher work more effectively with deaf parents?

First, parents and schools specifically should request a certified interpreter, who has been trained. Secondly, school professionals and parents need to be educated about bilingual children’s language development. That way, they will know what to expect from children in a bilingual family.

Weiner suggests additional steps that may be helpful in working effectively with deaf parents and their hearing children, as summarised below:

1. Educate yourself about deaf people in general, deafness, Deaf culture, and American Sign Language.

2. Look up local resources/services for the deaf in your area. Try to find someone who could be a cultural guide for bilingual and bicultural hearing children of Deaf parents. It could be an educated deaf professional/ parent, an adult hearing child of deaf parents, a deaf advocator or any professionals educated in deafness.

3. Be willing to meet parents halfway in making the effort to get an interpreter for your meeting with them Do not assume they know sign language. They may use American Sign Language, cued speech, contact language or the oral method.

4. If a hearing child of Deaf parents has language problems, do not assume it is because of the parents’ deafness. Have the child tested to rule out language disability or hearing loss.

5. Be aware that not all hearing children of deaf parents can sign. Not all children are effective at signing for developmental reasons or because the parents chose one child to be the designated signer. Parents may choose not to sign. They may not know sign language or felt that their hearing child did not need to sign.

6. Do not stereotype Deaf parents. There are deaf parents who are wonderful and educated. Like any other parents, they are from all walks of life and different life experiences. Be aware that Deaf parents are raising ‘foreign’ children. In that sense, it is like a white couple raising a black child (Singleton & Tittle, 2000).

7. If possible, provide workshops that can help bridge the connections between the hearing world and deaf world. It could be an assertive skill training or giving the deaf parents the opportunity to educate others about their world.

8. Before hiring an interpreter for the purpose of meeting with parents, be sure to find out what kind of sign language interpreter parents need. Be sure that the interpreter is certified in their field.

Weiner then offers guidelines for deaf parents with hearing children, which teachers should know, too:

1. Help yourself first by accepting yourself as a Deaf person. Use the language mode that you are most comfortable with. Do use that language mode with your children always. You need to be yourself.

2. Understand child development, especially of language. Children need their parents to talk to them and to provide them with what they need for language development. You can educate yourself by attending parenting workshops or from books. This knowledge does not come naturally for all parents.

3. All children need their parents to communicate with them at all times. Be able to talk about anything with your children and on an emotional level.

4. Because there is a history of deafness in your family, it is strongly suggested that your children’s hearing be tested at early age especially if you are concerned about your child’s language development.

5. Learn to be assertive. You will need to be part of the hearing world for your child’s sake. You could read self-help books or take a workshop on assertive skills. Your child needs you to participate in the ‘hearing’ world since he is hearing.

6. Accept that your child is hearing and that you are fine about it. It is part of his identity and if you are not happy about it, nor will your child. Along the same vein, encourage your child to be part of the Deaf world since that is part of his identity.

7. Many people do not understand or know about deafness. It is our job to educate them, thus the need for us to be assertive, a skill that your child/ren can learn from you.

8. Just because your child is hearing, it does not mean that your child knows more. You have more life experience and education. Parents need to hold healthy power in the family and children to feel secure in that their parents are in control.

9. About interpreting, it is fine to let your children interpret if they want to in situations that are not stressful like ordering pizza or neighbourly chats. Never have them interpret about death in the family, money or wills. Letting your child interpret for you sometimes makes them feel good about themselves.

10. Encourage all of your children to have the same communicative ability. Do not depend on one child to communicate with you.

11. Find someone to read aloud to your children if you feel you are unable to do so. Emphasize the importance of reading. Have your children see you read often.

12. Get to know your neighbours for your children’s sakes. Offer to have a deaf awareness party or to set up a sign language class.

13. Try to be close to a hearing parent in your neighbourhood so you can know what is happening in the area and your children’s schools. It is important not to be in the dark about things that are happening in your child’s life.

14. Understand that your child may have trouble with his identity. He may wonder if he should be more active in the hearing world or the deaf world. Have him learn that he can be part of both worlds. For normal identity development, have them play and learn from other hearing children of deaf parents. If there are no programs and meetings that provide such opportunities set one up with other deaf parents with hearing children.

15. Allow your child to interact with other hearing children and families; especially those you trust.

16. Be involved in your child’s school activities even if it is difficult to understand what is happening. Encourage their school to provide interpreters. Offer to talk to teachers or children about deafness in general or volunteer to teach some signs.

17. If you have difficulty understanding your child’s world, find a hearing adult child of deaf parents to be a cultural guide in that they can explain things like music to you.’

18. If your child needs an advocate at school meetings and you feel you can’t be that person, find a professional who understands about deafness to help you and your child. You have that right to have such person at meetings with hearing people concerning your child’s needs.

The whole paper presents a full and fascinating study, which helps a greater understanding of Deaf culture and history. Copies of the paper, together with full references as supplied by Mary Weiner, may be obtained from DPPI.

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 40, October 2002.

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