Parents of Deaf children often lack key support from the Deaf community

A growing number of deaf and hard of hearing children in the United States are receiving cochlear implants – electrical conductors surgically inserted into the inner ear to stimulate the nerve responsible for hearing.

Fewer than 30,000 American children received cochlear implants in 2010, while approximately 65,000 children had them in 2019. This is due to the continuous improvement in medical and technological advancements in cochlear implantation that make it cheaper and less painful to hear better than they would with other types of devices.

Yet most children with cochlear implants still need significant help learning to understand and produce spoken language, let alone learning the material taught in classes primarily for students who can hear. And they often struggle to fit in with their born-hearing peers, sometimes only finding a community that truly understands their life journeys as they reach adulthood and connect with others born deaf or hard of hearing.

When parents choose to have their child have a cochlear implant, they are undoubtedly making the best choices possible with the information and understanding they have of growing up and living in a world where most people can hear.

But too often, they miss key support for themselves and their children, from the deaf community, of which I am a part – as a deaf mother of a deaf son – and study professionally. People who are deaf or hard of hearing and those with average hearing all use sign language – the most common of which in the United States is American Sign Language – to understand and express themselves in ways that go beyond speech and help each other navigate the challenges presented in a hearing world.

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, some of the benefits of having a cochlear implant include the ability to understand speech without reading lips, making phone calls, watching television, and enjoying music.


Many professional websites run by hearing implant specialists boast that deaf and hard of hearing children can be trained to speak and hear for full integration into their communities.

But these sources omit key information, such as the common need for assistance in school even after receiving a cochlear implant. Their primary focus, as with many consultations with hearing specialists, audiologists, and speech therapists, is to help deaf and hard of hearing children learn to listen and speak.

These efforts minimize or ignore the idea that there are other ways for deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate, without difficulty or difficulty. For example, in the section of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website on screening for congenital deafness, the focus is on providing early intervention services to deaf and hard of hearing children in order to avoid delays in learning to speak. Information on American Sign Language can only be accessed by clicking to another page and reading a bulleted list of technical jargon like “auditory-oral” and “cued speech.”

For decades, if not centuries, the Deaf community in the United States and around the world has been ignored, even suppressed, by mainstream hearing society.

As early as the 19th century, educators of deaf people, such as the inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell, tended to believe that speaking and listening are essential to functioning in society at large. As a result, they discouraged children from learning to sign, even though research shows that if children can communicate effectively without speaking, they will be more interested in learning to speak.

This resulted in the methods used to teach generations of deaf Americans, including myself, in schools for the deaf. I was not allowed to use American Sign Language in class, but rather what was called the “Rochester Method,” a combination of speech and finger spelling.

Attendance at these schools, which are mostly residential, has been declining since the passage in 1975 of the first federal law requiring public school systems to provide a range of educational options for students with different medical or physical conditions, including including hearing loss. One option was placement in regular schools with support grants.

But public schools aren’t always effective at supporting deaf and hard of hearing students, who often struggle to keep up with and fit in with school, including classrooms, hallways, cafeterias and breakout spaces. hobbies – all of which can be very loud, making it difficult to distinguish one person’s voice from another.

All of this history helps explain why there is so little research on the Deaf community and why officials and families often don’t know much about it.

There is no recent census data or systematic research on the use of American Sign Language. The best number I have ever found was published in 2004, when the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Iowa estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 people in the United States – deaf and hearing – used American Sign Language.

In my personal and professional experience, this group – the deaf community – is made up of people who are well equipped to support the mental, emotional and social health of deaf and hard of hearing children and their families. They participate fully in society, working in a wide range of jobs without being hindered by the limits of their hearing. And they came to understand the role of deafness in their own identity and in their lives. The HeART of Deaf Culture website features a selection of creative works that present deep insight into Deaf identity affirmation.

Yet deaf children who are learning to speak often struggle with language delays throughout childhood and into adulthood. However, teaching them to sign can help them fully express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and find acceptance and connection with others with similar experiences. I believe that these children deserve to learn to sign, to celebrate their deaf identity.

And many parents of deaf children want more help from the deaf community than they can find. A 2018 survey found that only 27% of hearing families with a deaf child had contact with deaf adults to help support their child.

One parent told investigators, “I wish we could have a Deaf mentor or at least have access to a program. I would really like to have a deaf person every week in our house who teaches us. And 8% of parents of deaf children said they wanted access to American Sign Language education.

But there are not enough professionals who master the signs available to meet this need.

As parents make their decisions about how best to support their deaf and hard of hearing children, they are sure to encounter many medical experts, speech pathologists and other professionals who want to help their children function in a world that places a lot of emphasis on hearing. But they need to know that there is also another community available, ready to help their deaf and hard of hearing children, with or without cochlear implants, better understand themselves and more fully develop their limitless human potential.

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