Critical Mass - A Critical Message

Op-ed for The Communicator


By Anne Marie Baer, Jennifer Pfau, and Becky Knott, Colorado

Our heartfelt thanks and gratitude go to Cheryl DeConde Johnson and Janet DesGeorges for writing the thorough and informative Communicator article, “How Many are Enough/Defining ‘Critical Mass’,” (Summer 2008, Volume XI.) As mothers of Deaf sons, we (Anne Marie Baer and Jennifer Pfau, both Deaf mothers, and Becky Knott, a hearing mother) felt inspired to share our viewpoints on certain aspects of this “critical” discussion. We would like to expand on some of the key points in the original article and share some personal stories. 

The article defines critical mass as ‘the number of students in a classroom, program or school that share common communication modes and characteristics and that is sufficient to support direct interaction opportunities among peers and adults.’  We would like to emphasize that ‘critical mass’ does not simply imply the population of Deaf/HOH children within a school.  The concept of ‘critical mass’ should include ALL the partners involved in a student’s education who work to create a community environment rich in language and incidental learning. This includes, but is not limited to, interpreters, teachers of the Deaf, speech therapists, and audiologists in addition to hearing peers who have partial or full direct interaction with Deaf/hh students in a variety of settings.  People often believe that when a Deaf/hh child is mainstreamed with assistive communication devices and/or interpreter services, adequate communication access is achieved; however, inclusion in this case can lead to social, psychological and emotional alienation as opportunities to develop direct relationships – i.e. communication which is whole, person to person, heart to heart, and uninterpreted – are often greatly diminished. 

The profound impact of such isolation is well-known among Deaf adults who were educated in an inclusive environment, where they were often the only Deaf/hh student in school. This is reflected in the choices commonly made by modern Deaf adults once they discover the world of ASL and the language-rich foundation of the Deaf Community.  Regardless of the degree of hearing loss or mode(s) of communication used at home and school, once mainstreamed Deaf/hh children are able to choose, they often find the place of authentic connection, communication and shared experiences among other Deaf/hh peers. The same story is reiterated by many Deaf adults enrolled as the only Deaf/hh student within a public school setting, and educated solely through spoken English. If critical mass exists within an oral program, the students still receive the essential component of direct communication with other Deaf/hh peers, in addition to the validation created by the shared experience of being Deaf/hh. This peer support enables a student to feel whole and provides an environment for social learning while fostering a healthy self-concept. Jennifer notes, “As a child coming from a ‘critical mass’ environment - forty Deaf children in a mainstreamed program growing up – regardless of my communication mode (oral), I had access to develop social and peer interaction with other oral-Deaf kids.”

Embedded in the article is the idea that ‘critical mass’ provides multiple models for problem-solving and negotiating life from the perspective of other Deaf/hh peers and Deaf faculty.  Actively working toward the goal of achieving critical mass in regional programs within our public school systems would provide Deaf/hh children a community within which to develop a strong self-concept and high self-esteem based on full direct communication access with peers during the crucial developmental years. 

It is difficult to achieve critical mass when parents insist their child be exposed to only one mode of communication when a center-based program can accommodate several modes. Many Deaf adults and hearing advocates have joined the national movement toward bilingual education for Deaf/hh children.  A bilingual environment is most successful when critical mass is achieved.  Although many Deaf people acquire skills in other sign systems such as Signing Exact English or Cued Speech, these are used by a small number of people within limited settings. These sign variations, however, may be useful teaching tools and learning strategies.

It would be ideal for hearing parents of Deaf/hh children to actively seek the wisdom and support of Deaf people. Ninety percent of Deaf children are born to hearing parents and that means the modern Deaf Community is comprised of those children. Hearing parents often fear losing their child to the Deaf Community as it is not intuitive to consider that a child may be part of a different group than his/her immediate family and still maintain intimacy with the family through years and developmental stages. Drawing on Jennifer’s experience, there were many times where she and her Deaf peers went to great lengths to please their hearing parents out of the guilt they felt in their hearts. She remembers days when her mom would tell her how sad she was when she found out her daughter was deaf. Jennifer believed that in order to make her mom happy she had to pretend everything was fine in school and she worked extremely hard to be “hearing.” 

Many parents don’t realize that when they grieve in front of their deaf children, the youngsters absorb those emotions and they grow up trying to please their parents and eliminate the pain they endured when they found out their child was deaf. Mainstreamed children often feel pressure to function the same as hearing children but later in life realize who they WANT TO BE instead of who they want to please. It is our opinion that if a child has access to a critical mass of peers growing up, the resulting sense of wholeness and complete self-concept built through shared experiences will give Deaf/hh children more confidence to embrace both the hearing and Deaf worlds.

In the article it discusses the fact that “Critical mass numbers for public school programs are relative and affected by such variables as age, student needs, communication approach, geography and family desires.”  In addition to the aforementioned variables, one important influence on critical mass is program reputation. For example, Mountain View Elementary School in Broomfield, Colorado boasts a vibrant preschool and kindergarten program. The reputation of this program and its lead teacher is known throughout the Denver area and people move to Broomfield specifically to enroll their children in the school. This exemplifies the importance of program quality in determining critical mass. 

In an ideal world, school administrators would become more aware of standards within Deaf Education, and would be able to anticipate the needs of Deaf/hh students. School districts and IEP teams would be able to educate parents about the benefits of attending a center-based program and how such a program reflects the Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights.  In Becky’s experience, the school district tried to “muscle” her into sending her son to the centerbased program by citing policy and service provision obligations (and/or lack of).  Ultimately, the decision to send her son to the centerbased program was an excellent one; however, had the school district addressed her concerns with respect, paired with a solid knowledge of Deaf education and the benefits of “critical mass,” a great deal of turmoil and hard feelings could have been avoided.  Although regional programs are generally economical for school district budgets, money should not be a justification articulated to parents for sending their children to centerbased programs.  Rather, school districts should refer to research, experts and experience that describe the benefits of critical mass in the education of Deaf children. The financial burden of a child receiving duplicate services in a school district is far less significant than the price of a child’s wholeness when educated in isolation from other Deaf/hh peers, which often has lasting lifetime impact.   

In closing, Anne Marie and Becky want to share about a recent event that occurred at a center-based program in Boulder Valley where both of their sons attend. A back-to-school barbecue was held for people involved with the Deaf/hh programs in the Boulder Valley School District. Approximately forty people attended the event and the energy was golden. Regardless of communication mode or skill, there was a sense of community-of shared experience and common goals-to provide the best social and educational environment for Deaf/hh children.

Similarly, Jennifer recently attended her son’s back-to-school night at Westlake Middle School in Broomfield. She was amazed by how the community, parents and teachers easily communicated with their Deaf family. It felt more like a “signing community” rather than a critical mass environment. She was astounded with the fingerspelling skills of many of the students. It is our goal to focus on these positive aspects of critical mass to advocate the creation of rich and fertile soil in which our Deaf/hh children will sprout, grow, flourish and blossom within a dynamic and language-rich community. Given the many perspectives on this issue, we hope to see an ongoing dialogue about “critical mass” in the future.  ~

Hands & Voices loves to generate a discussion. Occasionally, we will publish thought-provoking pieces on issues affecting our children. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily represent views of the Hands & Voices staff or H&V state chapters.

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