Is This a Deaf Thing?


By Leeanne Seaver © 2010

Dane and Leeanne

Indeed, sharks were present. Dane’s risk-taking personality has nothing to do with his hearing loss.

“Is she having a tantrum because she doesn’t understand why I took the toy away, or is it because she’s spoiled?”  Parents at a Hands & Voices meeting shared their concerns about certain behaviors they observed in their children who were deaf or hard of hearing—some were oral, some were signers, some were cuers, some were combiners.  “Is this a deaf thing?” was the resounding theme and even the most seasoned parents admitted to the omnipresent possibility that their children’s hearing loss could explain certain situations…or could it?

Kudos to any parent who has ever asked “is this a deaf thing?”  To recognize that hearing loss may be the invisible variable in any dynamic reflects a necessary sensitivity and awareness that all parents must develop.  When children who are deaf or hard of hearing (d/hh) act in unexpected, untraditional, socially un-synched, or even inappropriate ways, parents (and professionals) should first and foremost examine the situation for communication breakdowns.  By all means, take the toy away if he was being naughty, but first examine why he was naughty.  Did he understand the concept and language of turn-taking and sharing?  Sure, he was told to take turns, but what did he actually understand about what he was told?

Deaf is Different

When you have a deaf or hard of hearing child, it’s not always parenting as usual for mom and dad. Some things are or should be the same for all children:  uncompromised parental love, devotion, acceptance and caring along with high expectations, strong support and honesty, to name just a few.  But parents need to recognize what is different for a d/hh child:  communication and the impact it has on family life, social dynamics, education, extra-curricular activities and a host of opportunities. The differences may be small or large depending on the individual d/hh kid, but they all track back to communication and the child’s right to full and effective access to—or deprivation from—all the information and exchange going on in his/her world.  Some things will be the same, but a child with hearing loss makes some things different in a family, and those things have to do with making appropriate communication accommodations for this child that include but are certainly not limited to his/her mode or method of communication.

The D-Thing Filter

The possibility and consequences for compromised understanding or total misunderstanding are very real, so it’s crucial to take pro-active steps and avoid the resulting problems.  Parents must develop a “filter” through which all communication passes so it can be tested for the child’s access to and understanding of what’s happening around him/her.  Think of it as The Deaf-Thing Test (or The D-Thing Filter or The Filter—whatever, just be sure to think of it).  Don’t expect d/hh kids to filter the world themselves—although this is an eventual goal.  It’s wrong to assume that d/hh kids should or will just ask whenever they need clarification. Too many times, d/hh children remain oblivious because they don’t know what they don’t know, and therefore, don’t ask questions that would clarify misunderstandings. 

When they act from a misinformed perspective, d/hh kids can look out of sync with the rest of the group. When we see that happening, or any of the aforementioned behaviors, it’s time to intervene. Parents and professionals with a good D-Thing Filter will take the time to tease out the “backstory” of the situation without blame or humiliation to the child, and then set the record straight for the d/hh and hearing kids alike.  It’s important not to single out a child with hearing loss in this process because it can send a message to him or her and everyone else that that kid is a problem.  In truth, compromised communication is the problem.

Apply the D-thing test to behavior relative to the stages of development.  Find out what is typical, age-appropriate behavior and development for the child in question; that should influence expectations accordingly. Make sure expectations for the child’s achievement are matched to the milestones for typical kids (unless this child has additional issues).  There is no acceptable allowance for delayed language development based on hearing loss; there is only the explanation of a lack of early identification and effective intervention. If a hearing loss is identified within the first month of life and effective early intervention and family support follows, there will be no language delay for a child who’s deaf or hard of hearing.  If s/he isn’t achieving or isn’t developing language and appropriate behavior that’s expected from typical same-aged peers, question why.  And intervene already.

Communication Looping

A good approach starts with anticipation of communication, and is followed by effective access to it, then wraps up a quality control check for accurate assimilation.  This applies to signing, cueing, combining or oral kids.  Think of this as a “communication looping” process and break it down into these steps:

  1. Communication happens.
  2. It is processed and meaning is attached to it.

    • accurate interpretations are rewarded
    • unchecked inaccuracies create problems
  3. Pro-act with quality-control for accurate and shared understanding.
  4. Test for comprehension, “Tell me what you understood.” That’s a far different question than “what did I say?” which leaves no room for differing human perceptions.

Parents and professionals alike should make a diligent practice of communication looping with young d/hh children, but of course, the goal is for the child to engage this quality-control process him/herself.  His or her mastery of this ensures eventual autonomy in the world.

An excellent example of this process was observed by millions viewing the Miss American Pageant when Heather Whitestone—the first-ever deaf contestant—was crowned in 1995.  Step 1: Pageant host Regis Philbin asked Heather the challenge question (the kind where world peace is usually part of the answer).  Step 2 & 3: Before answering, Heather said, “I want to make sure I understood you; did you ask me ….” and she restated what she had heard. Step 4: Regis confirmed her understanding of the question, so Heather knew how to respond accurately and appropriately.  The reward: a crown!  Wouldn’t it be great if we could always provide that kind of incentive!

Exploring the D Thing

How effective is the parent’s D-thing test or filter?  It might be helpful to answer these questions, especially in a parent group discussion.

  1. How am I interpreting what I’m seeing in my child?
    • Is your baby pulling out her hearing aids because she’s trying to tell you she doesn’t want to learn to listen and speak, or because he’s in the oral/motor phase of development and eager to put them in his mouth?
    • Is my child sending signals that s/he’s frustrated? Unable to express him/herself? How am I responding to that input?
  2. Are the stereotypes affecting me?
    • FYI: none of the warnings about difficult potty training, inherent behavior problems, or other d/hh myths are true.
    • Does my parenting reflect fear of my child’s difference from kids with normal hearing?
  3. How do I explore my child’s understanding of his/her world?
    • Have I asked him or her “what do you think the problem is?” or other leading questions?
    • Have I modeled the standard for behavior—consistently?  Can s/he tell me what that standard is?
    • Do we talk about how s/he feels?  About how others feel?  Does s/he have the language to describe all his/her feelings?
  4. Am I over-protecting?
    • Do I hover and rescue my child from natural consequences?
    • Does my child understand cause and effect relationships, and his/her role in them?
    • Do I let my child fail?
  5. Do I have a role model for parenting a d/hh child?
    • If I came from an all hearing family, I probably lack necessary examples of a unique parent skillset.
    • What kind of question or issue is best processed with another parent of a d/hh child?
  6. Do I know that the message from the Girl Scout Leader/the Sunday School Teacher/the Coach/the Rabbi or the Family Doctor is really getting through to my kid?
    • My kid is little, and I need to make communication accommodations happen—I can’t assume they’ll know to do this, so what’s my plan?
    • What environments are challenging for my kid (the school bus? neighborhood hide & go seek after dark? the family reunion?)—what’s my plan to address this proactively?
  7. If my child is school-aged, have we ensured full and effective communication access to academics and extracurricular activities based on his/her mode of communication?
    • Does s/he have teachers who are qualified and prepared to meet his/her needs?
    • Does my child have peers and teachers with whom s/he can communicate directly?
    • Do I know what kind of “specially designed instruction” works best for my child, and how it’s being used to keep him/her on-par with typical same-aged peers?
  8. Does my child have real friends with whom s/he genuinely and confidently communicates?
    • By age seven, real friendships emerge between children and all kids need friends.
    • In addition to friendship, kids need peers to argue with—this form of communication provides practice for negotiation, compromise and problem solving skills that all human beings need.
  9. The school is calling and they’ve think you’re child could have attention deficit and problem behavior issues.
    • How will I explore this issue relative to communication access?
    • Have I explored this issue with my child—does s/he think it’s cooler to be “bad” than to look stupid?  What are underlying motivations for this for him/her?
  10. Have we genuinely considered where there could be gaps in our child’s social learning?
    • Do I understand what social or passive learning is?
    • What’s my plan to address this risk to my child’s emotional development?

The Personality Factor

After thorough, proactive consideration to address each and every possible communication conundrum, responsible parents Joe and Janet watch in horror as little Suzy (with an 80 dB pure tone average hearing loss) whacks Billy with the toy.  Fast forward 25 years later: Suzy’s whacking some shyster with a lawsuit on behalf of her client who’s paying her big bucks for legal counsel. Her proud parents are enjoying their retirement condo on the beach, courtesy of Suzy; heck, maybe her aggressive nature has served her well in the end! The point is that personality is an inextricable part of the equation, and parents should always consider whether “the deaf thing” is really “the Suzy thing.”

Every child with hearing loss is not a miserable creature waiting to lash out at the world. There are parents who will come out shining after deep introspection of their child and family through the self-administered D-Thing test.  They’ve met the challenge head on, and their d/hh kid is well-adjusted and successful both socially and academically with only the normal amount of life’s struggle and strain.  He’s comfortable in his own skin.  Things may go wrong from time to time, but as important as it is to filter that for the D-Thing, it’s equally important to consider the child as a unique human being who is presented with opportunities for growth every time the world pushes back against him or her.

In truth, all kids—even award-winning, crown-wearing kids—will experience some struggles and strain whether they hear normally or not.  Normal hearing does not ensure social success, academic achievement or comfortable communication with family and the world. If you’re a hearing parent or professional, ask yourself if you’ve ever faced challenges on these fronts.  Our personalities play a big part in how we move through these situations and grow or shrink from the experience.  So consider how the child’s personality is factoring into dynamic. In a perfect world, we see a multi-faceted individual emerging who is the sum of all his parts—including but not limited to his ears, his hands and/or his voice.  And that child is gonna rock this world. ~

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