Digital Citizenship for DHH Youth: A Very Bumpy Ride, Indeed.


Digital citizenship is problematic for DHH children and youth.  Consider the following scenarios from my years of teaching :   a young Deaf woman, sent naked pictures to a young man in the same school.  The only way I found out about it was through the intervention of a local school officer.  This same young woman came to me every time a dialogue box popped up on her laptop.  She didn’t know whether to click yes or no but she had enough digital skills to send those picture via her cell phone.  She also had enough reading skills to decode the requests made by this young man.

I once had to read miles of Facebook pages and emails to decipher an argument between two Deaf girls and a hearing adult who threatened to stalk, torture and kill them.  They were more worried about warning a Deaf girl, who happened to be the girlfriend of that hearing adult than themselves because they really couldn’t understand the content of the messages.

A languageless Deaf young adult immigrant began learning sign language for the first time,  and figured out how to set up a Facebook page.  I discovered that another Deaf classmate who is much more advanced in his language skills had set up a skeleton web page using this Deaf immigrant’s personal data in order to facilitate gang related activities.   Of course I had to intervene to get the page taken down because while the immigrant Deaf person knew about the page and approved of the “gangster image” he was projecting on this page,  he had no idea what was written on this page and what it was for.  

A hard of hearing young man who was reading at the third grade level whipped through a course on Adobe Photoshop, scoring the highest marks in the class.  How was he able to do this?  By looking at the diagrams but not the text providing the instructions.   He indiscriminately downloaded and manipulated images from Google with the skills learned in class.  

Adolescent Deaf gamers played through the night and woke up exhausted, and unable to reason their way through a small amount of text placed before them.  Their reading levels ranged from grade two to grade four.  But they were master gamers,  dedicated to obtaining the latest technology in the gaming industry.   By day,  they were almost unreachable.

Digital citizenship is problematic for this small and often neglected population.  It is assumed that the internet is a great boon for Deaf people and in some ways,  the internet has empowered many Deaf people to participate more in society.  Yet there is a digital divide that continues to entrench the usual divisions between Deaf and hearing communities (Valentine and Skeleton, 2009).  This divide is defined by the privileging of auditory based information on the internet.  While visual content has exploded online,  most of this is bracketed by spoken languages.  Audiocentric privilege  is often buttressed by unquestioned optimism in the power of technology that purports to augment hearing or even correct hearing. Audiocentric privilege attributes  failures to DHH students’ mental deficits rather than to lack of commitment on the part of educators and administrators to providing language.  This commitment, by the way, might begin with a stringent dedication to using only captioned films, movies and videos in place of videos captioned through auto-generated captions.  I have yet to see this commitment at any level of education including universities in this province.

Yet digital citizenship,  in the long shadow of language deprivation,  often gets shunted aside in order to address the basics:  knowing the names of your family members,  your address, postal code,  learning the difference between a verb and a noun,  trying to decipher a grade four text in order to write a report.  These are all adolescents, remember.  Not knowing how you really feel about anything in life because you’ve been patronized, controlled, and labelled as deficient indirectly leads them into places where they can feel powerful.  And that’s the digital world.  

Available Resources and Their Applicability to DHH students

Meanwhile, we discuss Visitors and Residents,  whether  “Digital Natives” Exist?,  digital literacy and fluency.  These readings don’t apply to my work because what can be made of the behaviors of  DHH students whose language often approximates that of a five year old child,  who has already years of pushing buttons on a laptop or an iPad just to see what it would do?  This is what language deprivation amounts to,  a digital citizenship that consists of pushing buttons,  seeing things flash and explode, naked bodies, and ripping pictures off the internet.  There’s very little that they can actually read for information on the internet but there is a lot they can do and figure out and most of it is illegal.  They are native and non native,  literate and not literate, fluent and not fluent in the most unexpected ways.  None of these categories apply to my work with DHH students.

I was unimpressed by Turkle (Sherry Turkle’s TED Talk “Connected, but Alone?”) for similar reasons.  As in the offline world,  the internet is replete with flashing images, exploding lights,  and advertisements which appear out of context and nonsensical just as the images of what we observe and see offline.  Without full access to language, most of the world in all its variety and images appears nonsensical as well.  We DHH people have the upper hand on what it means to be alone in offline and online worlds.  So Turkle couldn’t help me out here as well.  

Danah Boyd’s “Social Media Sites as Networked Publics”, a discussion of adolescents bringing in code to personalize their spaces on social media sites such as MySpace or Facebook, highlights the literacy skills required for coding.  Furthermore she discusses how students go online to hang out with people they know.  My own experiments with class blogging with DHH students have resulted in painfully written one line sentences which contribute very little or nothing to what another person has posted.  We are still working this,  very slowly.

With regard to Potter’s work on media literacy – Media Literacy – Chapter 1 & 2 (Potter),  I was intrigued for a few moments with the idea of automatic routines where the brain filters out information in order to make sense of a huge amount of data.  Since language deprivation impacts executive function and therefore the ability to filter useful and not useful data,  I was stuck again.  

There is a paucity of research on how DHH students employ online activities.  The research to date suggests that the online activity is determined by linguistic capacity.  Lessened available linguistic capacity leads to restricted online activity.  For this reason,  the work of Andersen and Rainie (The Future of Social Relations) didn’t offer much in the way of their report of a online survey concerning the future of social relations.  If DHH students couldn’t read that survey,  then their responses would not be valid.

The premise of Character Education for the Digital Age by Ohler is that all people crave community and that  survival, effective communication, cultural stability, purposeful education for our children, and creative expression are essential to the survival of community life and participation.  Language deprivation assures that the DHH students will never be fully part of any community.  So that wasn’t helpful to my quest for digital citizenship resources.

The public shaming experienced by Monica Lewinsky ( The Price of Shame ) and the “One Tweet Can Ruin Your Life” by Ron Johnson held my attention the longest (perhaps it was because both videos were professionally captioned).   The public shaming that is endured by those who are deprived of language is insidious, soul destroying and relentless.  It never ends.  I could connect with the internet shaming,  not because it happens online,  but it is prevalent in the lives of DHH peoples.

Finally,  this is another issue concerning digital citizenship regarding DHH peoples.  Here is a picture of the I love you sign I took of my own hand.  If you look on compfight,  you will find that ASL handshapes are copyrighted.  I-love-you.jpgThis is outrageous.  This is equivalent to copyrighting a word that is typed out in the Times New Roman font.  This is a way to misappropriate a language for commercial gain.  So,  if we can’t even use our own language without getting slammed for copyright,  then there is a huge problem with digital citizenship and copyright issues.



A Framework (Sort of)

Ribble’s Ribble’s Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship  has proven to be the most useful framework for considering digital citizenship of DHH students except we DHH are all stuck at Digital Access.  For this reason, I’ve heeded Valentine and Skeleton (2009)’s admonition not to look at access for DHH students but what they are actually doing with the digital tools and the internet.  This strange juxtaposition between near illiteracy and the ability to figure out how to make something happen online needs to become the basis for a new approach for digital citizenship.  I have become very pragmatic in my approach and the burning question is:  how do I impart digital citizenship to those who are deprived of language?  If I look not on question of access, but on what they do and don’t online,  then it becomes clearer as to how to address digital citizenship with 1) DHH students, 2) their parents,  3) and other educators.

DHH students

First,  I’d explain the basic tenets of digital citizenship in very clear and rudimentary terms according to the cultural norms of the Deaf community.  Within this topic, there are no gray areas.  They will try to reach beyond the limits imposed by digital citizenship but they will have clear boundaries about what is permissible or not permissible.  Vague terms such as “not feeling comfortable with what you see online” needs to be tossed out and replaced with clear, direct, and blunt explanations. This is a Deaf cultural norm used by culturally Deaf teachers

Parents of DHH children and youth

I would ask the parents to learn to differentiate between a language rich application and an application that merely asks them to push buttons.  Language rich applications are useful and require more thought, involve a struggle to use language appropriately and clearly.  I would also ask parents to monitor the use of online applications and digital technologies very closely because the potential for getting into dangerous situations is much higher.  Furthermore,  I would redouble efforts to develop language rather than accepting language deprivation as an inevitable outcome of deafness.  This is simply not true and this fact is well substantiated by neurolinguistic research.  Then, digital citizenship needs to be a shared responsibility between the DHH students and their parents.

Educators working with DHH students

Educators, when working from a deficit perspective on DHH children and youth, assume that the language needs to be developed first before addressing digital citizenship.  Language development is not a lockstep approach.  First things first, we’d like to say, as we wring our hands over what they don’t know and should be able to know by now.  The truth is,  DHH students are on the internet,  and they are able to navigate their way around without having to read much.  They can get stuff done.  For this reason,  consider implementing a blended classroom whereby they can read what do to do and develop inner, social and intellectual strategies to get digitally based assignments done.  Digital citizenship can become a natural part of the dialogue instead of flashing a video or holding forth on the topic for an hour.

It’s all about the Design concerning Digital Citizenship

Without the benefit of learning about digital citizenship,  the DHH students’ digital citizenship on the internet is a feral existence.  Instead of showing flashy autogenerated captioned visually noisy videos on digital citizenship, I’ve showed students how to upload their work to Flickr, and to select appropriate copyright options for their work.  I introduce digital citizenship issues into conversations and five minute discussions.   I am addressing digital citizenship by design:  establishing a blended classroom, reducing the amount of one on one time with adult staff and teachers (which encourages dependency, powerlessness and apathy),  encouraging social interaction with peers to solve problems,  provide comments and feedback, and developing skills with selected digital tools such as those provided by Google,  scanners, cameras, filming, lighting, editing and captioning.  The use of film, image, and text allowing for sharing and viewing in appropriate ways.

Finally,  I am using the principles, strategies and approaches provided by research on the participatory digital culture with specific attention to remixing.   For this reason,  I found the following design resources:  ISTE Standards, Remix: The Art & Craft of Endless Hybridization, Laws that Choke Creativity, Understanding the Basics of Rhizomatic Learning, Participatory Culture (Video) to be the most valuable in terms of providing learning about digital citizenship in a natural context and develop language at the same time.  

I have found certain posts  of the ECI832 class to be immensely valuable concerning new technology or digital tools.  Aurasma, ReadWrite for Chrome, PearDeck,, WeVideo, Mooc, and Compfight are a few of the tools I’ve tried and learned to like.

Design that is culturally relevant, appropriate and sensitive for DHH students who are deprived of language, culture and identity is the first step toward educating about digital citizenship.



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