Colonized research on deaf children and youth

Two thoughts from this week.  A colleague wrote to me, “All ASL acquisition is atypical.” That made me pause.  You see,  I’ve been really frightened by Rachel Mayberry’s research finding that timing is everything when it comes to ASL language acquisition.  That late language acquisition (ASL or English) makes it very difficult to acquire a second language again, ASL or English.  In my daily practice,  I do see this again and again.   This research finding contributes to my own feelings of hopelessness as I race against time,  trying to find ways to speed up ASL acquisition or to at least ameliorate the effects of language deprivation.

But I also see something else. Hence my second thought. I know of Deaf adults who entered the school for the deaf. languageless at age five or six only to emerge as college graduates from Gallaudet University,  holding down professional jobs, supporting families, and paying taxes.  What the hell?  They didn’t get the early childhood intervention.  As well,  I have seen students with limited vocabulary, limited sign skills and speech abilities make extraordinary progress in a few short years.  In my own practice,  it is about finding entry into their minds rather than pounding the same English words into their brains over and over again.  

We have very little research as to what can be done with language deprived deaf children and youth.  The assumption, held by deaf and hearing alike, is that they are a lost cause, doomed to live in poverty,  faced with few choices concerning work, education and relationships.  I’m not so sure anymore.  I have no evidence or research to support what I am seeing at this point.  I don’t have a study in progress,  nor do I have any proof concerning the expected rates of progress or growth of language deprived children and youth.  All I have is the repeated studies that say the average high school deaf student leaves grade twelve with a grade four reading level.  But because ASL acquisition is atypical, now I am starting to wonder if research on deaf education is colonized.  There are too many discrepancies,  too many puzzling anomalies,  and too many questions.  We know too much about what language deprived deaf children and youth can’t do.  I know so little about what deaf children deprived of language CAN do except I have my gut feelings and private observations and all I have are many questions.

As well,  I am faced with trying to sort out the intersectionality between class, race and gender.  Some deaf children do progress quickly when presented with ASL role models despite their serious language deprivation.  Who are these children and youth?  Do they succeed because of or in spite of intersectionalities concerning class, race and gender? What is happening?

Furthermore, I am beginning to wonder if research is colonized because we don’t pay attention to the role of community in language acquisition.  We don’t think about how the child is integrated into community except on audist terms:  “look how well he/she approximates us hearing people!”  That’s not community integration.  It’s colonization. Many researchers treat deaf children as separate, atomistic entities, separated from the community in which they are immersed.

ASL acquisition through community life may seem atypical because the immersion in a Deaf community remains for the most part,  accidental.  Parents may not receive any information about the Deaf community when their child is identified,  or may stumble upon it when their child is screaming or punching holes into the wall due to frustration. Because we still think that deaf people are inferior to hearing people, we often think of language acquisition as primarily an individual enterprise,  a lonely struggle accompanied by grit and determination.  Or we expect deaf children and youth to acquire language away from the Deaf community and somehow emerge as hearing persons who just can’t hear very well.

We can learn from the recent news article citing a psychologist’s assessment of First Nations communities in northern Saskatchewan,  that mental health problems are largely caused by colonization.

This is my friend, Chrystene Ells’ response to the article (she is an artist in residence along with Berny Hi) working in my program and the director of Deaf Crows:

Individual therapy can bolster community healing, but the community needs to be strong enough to care for its people. Thinking about it this way i see the truly profound struggle of the Saskatchewan Deaf Community, a marginalized people without a voice or power in a world that is completely unaware of their existence and needs. Deaf Crows sparked a fire and we knew it would. The most common thing i get from people, good people, people who would care if they knew, is, “Wow. I had no idea.” The Deaf Community, like all invisible communities, needs representation from within. The worst part about this issue is that the Hearing world and the Deaf world don’t communicate well and Hearing people are tapped to represent the Deaf. Can you imagine if only white people represented, for example, the needs of the First Nations communities? This is one of the things that makes the Deaf community so vulnerable.

Many (though certainly not all) hearing people who are tapped to represent Deaf people are doing the research, deciding upon the questions, framing the parameters of research, perhaps failing to understand that ASL language acquisition is atypical because it is dependent upon the health of the Deaf community.  When the community is strong and healthy,  ASL acquisition follows the same sequence and progression as spoken English acquisition.  And even a strong and healthy Deaf community can reach out to those who have not received exposure to ASL at an early age.  This is what I’ve seen and  this is what I know from my daily practice as an educator.  That innate intelligence, motivation, and the will to succeed, despite delayed exposure, can thrive in the context of a Deaf community and even the most language deprived deaf child can find his/her way in the hearing and deaf  worlds and live a full life.   It is now up to us Deaf and hearing researchers to lead the way in decolonizing research,  that is,  addressing the gap concerning the role of community in language deprivation, and how the health of the community determines the path of language acquisition.  We need to develop new questions that are not colonized.



One comment

  1. thishotplace · · Reply

    Excellent post, Joanne! I didn’t realize you were a blogger. I’m adding you to my reader.

    Not knowing a whole lot about the deaf community, but knowing it’s marginalized as all differently abled communities typically are, I would agree that the research is colonized and that intersectionality needs to be examined. It just makes sense to my mind.


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