Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see a panel of Deaf adults share stories from their life experiences. This was no ordinary panel. These were Deaf adults who had defied all of the stereotypes about hearing loss and beaten the educational odds. In addition to being Deaf with language barriers, they told stories of overcoming abject poverty, racial profiling, disadvantaged families, and isolation. The panel was racially and ethnically diverse, each with unique educational backgrounds ranging from oral schools, to mainstream schools with interpreters, to residential schools. Despite the economic and educational obstacles, despite stigmas and cultural marginalization, the panel of Deaf adults represented true-life success stories. Each panelist held degrees in higher education. They were professionals, educators, political activists, leaders and pillars in the Deaf community, and I wanted to know the key to their success.
My son Micah was the first Deaf person I had ever met. Before him, stories of Helen Keller and the film Children of a Lesser God formulated my ideas about what it means to be Deaf in the United States; therefore, I knew next to nothing. So as I listened to the panelists share their stories, I was fascinated to hear their perspectives.
Soren Kierkegaard, a theologian, poet and philosopher says, “Life must be lived forwards, but it can be understood only backwards.” As each panelist told the stories of their childhood, one theme repeatedly rose to the surface: The significance of developing a healthy Deaf identity.
Two hundred years ago, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Dr. Mason Cogswell, and Laurent Clerc founded The American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. From this school, Deaf pupils became teachers and helped create a nation-wide network of residential schools. According to Harlan Lane’s comprehensive historical account When the Mind Hears, “each new school for the Deaf was like a planet” with its own set of satellites, “attracting not only Deaf pupils, faculty, and staff, but also Deaf adults in the community (Lane 112). Students learned from the signing society around them, and early Deaf educators regarded oralism and day schools as the “single enemy of the Deaf”(250). Day schools, the equivalent to mainstream neighborhood schools today, were seen as problematic, because early Deaf educators believed they dispersed and isolated Deaf students. But despite this firm belief, 75% of Deaf students attend mainstream schools today, and one in five is the only Deaf student in the entire school.
Some counties have mainstream schools with small Deaf Educational programs, but the degree to which these rare programs are staffed with qualified teachers and interpreters varies from district to district. I’m fortunate to live in a county where Micah can attend a neighborhood school with a handful of language peers. Even better, my county recognizes the importance of hiring Deaf teachers to serve as language models and role models. But I realize this isn’t the case for most students, and even when programs like these do exist, they are often housed in struggling schools. For example, according to the Florida Department of Education, the Deaf Education program in my county is housed in a C-rated middle school. And according to a 2013 ABC Action News story, that school reported 18 battery cases in six months. ABC News Story
While Brown v. Board of Education was the pivotal case that launched the civil rights movement and school desegregation, according to Carol Padden’s book Inside Deaf Culture, “the impulse to segregate deaf children from one another by some dimension—oral versus total communication, signing versus implanted—is a stubbornly persistent one.” The result is a fragmented community and children who grow up in isolation.
Apart from the one panelists who attended a Deaf residential school and the one Deaf panelist born to Deaf parents, all of the other adults who shared their stories were raised in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s—Decades in this country when American Sign Language was not formally taught to Deaf children. Their experiences comprised of oral education in mainstream settings where they were either the only Deaf student in a hearing school or one among a handful of Deaf students. Overall, they described adolescent experiences of isolation and loneliness. Not until they attended a Deaf high school or a Deaf college like Gallaudet University or the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college of Rochester Institute of Technology, did they finally blossom from feelings of insecurity to having a positive self-identity. For most of them, attending these Deaf schools was their first exposure to American Sign Language and Deaf culture.
According to research conducted by the Department of Psychology at Oxford Brookes University, “Deaf students in mainstream schools report feeling socially isolated and lonely, and have lower self-esteem than those students in special schools.” For the one panelist fortunate enough to attend a Deaf residential school, she told a story that is reiterated by Deaf adults nationwide and supported by research: “special schools for the Deaf foster socio-emotional growth better than mainstream schools.” 
The stories I heard from the Deaf adult panelists hit close to home because now that my son is an adolescent, he is expressing a stronger need for peers. Micah is almost twelve-years-old, mainstreamed at a school with several other D/HH students, and headed to middle school next year. More than anything, he longs for friendships, but when you are a language minority, friends are hard to come by.
Lately, I’ve had to consider the significance of friends verses the importance of academics, and as a former English high school teacher, I’ve come to conclusions that surprise even myself.
Five minutes from my home is a dream middle school. In 2017, the school was ranked #4 out of 103 public middle schools in Tampa Bay. The teachers are ranked #1 in my county, and all of me would love nothing more than to send Micah to an excellent, safe A-rated school. But there is one caveat—he would be the only Deaf student.
As I listened to the stories from the panelist, I realized that as Micah enters adolescence, the value of one good friend, may supersede the value of a top-ranked school. For kids like my son, the current policy of integrating students with special educational needs into mainstream settings ignores the negative experiences of mainstreamed Deaf adults. It ignores the research that finds that 67% of Deaf students have no friends in mainstream settings. 
A study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science found that “physical health in adulthood could be predicted based on the quality of close friendships in adolescence.” The adolescent inclination to prioritize friendships above all other relationships may be instinctual, because friendships at that stage of development are linked to future well-being. One study even suggests that “having close, supportive relationships in adolescence would lower the risk of having stress-related health problems in adulthood.” 
I understand that there are exceptions. My daughter, who is Deaf in one ear, is one of them. She identifies as hearing and her friendships are primarily with hearing teens. Other exceptions may be students who have cochlear implants and communicate primarily with speech.
There are no cookie-cutter kids. Each child’s deafness is unique; therefore, the community where they thrive is also unique to them. Sometimes it’s among the hearing, but statistically, more often, it’s among the Deaf, and the sooner parents understand and acknowledge that, the better.
Three hours from my home is the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. And although I’m not ready to send my twelve-year-old to a residential school YET, I understand that my son needs more than American Sign Language and strong academics to be successful. He also needs a healthy Deaf identity, a sense of belonging, pride, and self-esteem—all things he will glean from being immersed in a Deaf community, developing friendships with Deaf peers, and being exposed to Deaf culture and Deaf adult role models. But until he’s in high school and ready to live independently, I’m choosing NOT to enroll my son at the top-ranked school in my county, because I understand more clearly the value of language peers, even at the expense of academics.
At the Family Center on Deafness, one of its priorities is meeting the social/emotional needs of Deaf and hard-of-hearing children. Weekly after school activities give students an opportunity to socialize with one another and develop the friendships they need to thrive as young adults. Summer camps provide Deaf and hard-of-hearing students with opportunities to fellowship, bond, and foster life-long friendships. For those of us with young children who are not ready for residential schools, programs like the Family Center on Deafness try to act as a segregate satellite around our local Deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the mainstream.
I foresee a residential school in Micah’s future, and every time I think about sending him away from home, my heart breaks a little. But I’m also excited for him, because I want him to be proud of his language, his culture, and his Deaf identity, lessons I think he will primarily learn at a residential school, where he will have exposure to language peers and Deaf adult role models.
Until that time comes, I feel fortunate to have The Family Center on Deafness standing in the gap between the residential school and the mainstream neighborhood school, providing opportunities for Micah to interact with Deaf and hard-of-hearing peers all year long. Programs ranging from after school tutoring, to summer camps, to social activities, all help kids like mine feel less alone.
If your community lacks a similar agency to FCD, make an effort to introduce your D/HH child to other children who communicate in sign language. Enroll your child in a one-week D/HH summer camp, even if it means sending them out of state. Organize D/HH play groups or parent meetings. Find local churches or synagogues with services in sign language in order to meet Deaf adults, and even consider hiring a Deaf or hard-of-hearing baby sitter to serve as a language model if you are not fluent in ASL. Recreating the full benefits of a residential school are impossible, but every attempt to surround your chid with supportive, language peers are a step in the right direction.
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