The Natural History of Bias

by Lorna Irwin & Leeanne Seaver

Research shows that committed, active parents are the biggest determining factor of a deaf or hard of hearing child's success. All methods and modes of communication require a lot of time and effort from parents-a commitment we are only willing to make if we have faith that the method/mode will work for our child! This very commitment puts us at risk for developing a bias towards the communication approach we've chosen. Indeed, lots of factors contribute to the potential to feel bias in favor of or against the various communication methods or modes. There are several different scenarios possible, and it is common to experience all of them to some degree at different times. Here's a sampling:

The Rebel with a Cause: The method we've chosen works well for us, but we meet with opposition from professionals or others who feel we are making a big mistake and try to steer us toward other choices. Or, we have to fight to have our child's communication needs met by an established educational program which uses another method. Now we dig in our heels - we not only have to be committed to our method, we have to "sell" it to the skeptics. At the worst, we may find ourselves dedicated to proving the method through our own child and losing sight of our child's actual needs.

The Convert: We were steered (possibly through fear and manipulation) into a method or mode which did not meet our expectations. In spite of our strong belief and commitment to it, it didn't work for our family, and our child did not progress. So we had to leave it, along with the community of support we had there. Finally, we discover another way that works-but now we're trying to make up for time lost to a method/mode that was not right for our child. We're angry at that approach and all those who supported it, and develop a strong negative bias toward it along with a passionate and uncritical love for the "new" way.

The Cheerleader: We chose a communication approach after reading about all methods/modalities and even "test driving" more than one of them. Our choice has worked well for our child and family. We have lots of resources, and the total support of our extended families and the professionals in our community. We're feeling so good about our success that we're convinced every child and family could be successful if they did things our way.

Regardless of how our biases developed and what justifications sustain them, there is something inherently dysfunctional about operating from a position of bias. As with each of these three scenarios (and all the others we didn't highlight), there's a point where our "truth" may limit us from seeing other possibilities for truth that could serve our child.

We All Pick up Bias-Baggage

No matter how wonderfully things go for us, we will run into professionals and agencies that don't serve us well, or people who say things that rub us the wrong way. We all pick up bias-baggage! It's important not to discount a professional, an educational program, an agency, or even an entire profession just because we've had a bad experience. It's important to keep our hearts and minds open to all the choices, opportunities and resources that could be helpful to our child.

It's almost impossible to raise a deaf child without someone telling you you're going about it all wrong! However painful it can be to feel "judged" by a professional, another family, or a member of the deaf community, we've got to keep our eyes on the prize-the only person we have to answer to is our child. It can also soften the impact of outside criticism to keep in mind that sometimes militant bias is just the armor hiding a person who suspects, perhaps at a level below his own awareness, that he may not be right after all.

This insecurity, often hidden at the very core of bias, can also form our own negative reactions, especially if we find ourselves with the need to make anyone with a different opinion "wrong" in order to feel "right." Our feelings may be red-flagging a problem, and we owe it to our children to get to the root of it. Why are we so upset by that person's remark? Have we avoided dealing with an area of concern? Have we adopted another's truth or really arrived at our choices on our own? How are we dealing with our moments of doubt? Finding the causes of our defensiveness can point us toward issues needing our attention.

Exposure Breeds Acceptance

The best antidote to bias is to meet lots of other families and hear their stories. It helps us recognize that every deaf or hard of hearing kid is different, and every family has different values and their own reasons for making the choices they have made. The experiences of deaf and hard of hearing adults can help us understand the challenges our kids face and will reinforce the realization that no two people-hearing or deaf-are exactly alike. Learning about the history of deaf education in this country can help put into perspective the opinions of older deaf adults and professionals in the field.

Professionals, like parents, have mode or method preferences. Some come to the field with prior experience of deafness-their own, or a family member's. Training programs are often weighted toward certain communication philosophies. Many professionals have very little experience in areas outside their expertise, so they can't share any success stories beyond their limited scope. Indeed, their primary experience with another approach may be with children for whom it was not the best choice, whose parents would then fall into the "convert" pattern.

Some professionals do their very best to be unbiased and present all options-treasure them! The best bet for parents is to seek opinions from a wide range of professionals, network with other families, meet and get to know adults who are deaf or hard of hearing, and research materials from as many sources as possible.

Staring Us Right in the Face

Finally, recognize that your child is going to be the best resource when it comes to decision-making. Getting to know his or her personality, inclinations, and abilities, and constantly testing your choices against your child's responses and progress, is the ultimate litmus test for what works.

As your child grows older, it is important that he or she explore and find his or her own path. This will be true for all children who experience a healthy "individuation" from parents and emerge into capable, autonomous adulthood. By fostering an attitude of acceptance and flexibility through their earlier years, we give our children the freedom to do this openly and confidently. As young adults, our children will and should make their own choices, and those decisions may not always sync with our parental points of view. This is a completely normal developmental process, and it should unfold for our kids without the feeling that they are somehow falling short of our expectations.

We can also hope our children will grow to respect all forms of communication and accept others for who they are rather than how they express themselves. A life that embraces diversity is richer then one that is limited by bias.

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