Helping parents chart the best course for their deaf child

September 1, 2006

Is deafness a disability or a difference? Crucial medical and educational choices hinge on the approach to this question. Second of two parts.

DR. KING is director, deaf education, Utah State University, Logan, Utah. He has nothing to disclose in regard to affiliations with, or financial interests in, any organization that may have an interest in any part of this article.

Communication involves shared meanings. Without deep and meaningful communication with parents, siblings, peers, teachers, and other significant people in a deaf child's life, there are no shared meanings, no shared experiences, no development of identity; adequate transmission of world knowledge suffers, often irreparably. Because deep and meaningful communication is a precursor to language development, whether the language is visual or auditory, establishing meaningful communication between the child and significant others cannot become a secondary consideration.

Parents naturally raise the question of what kind of language will be most accessible to their deaf child: a visual language or an auditory language? Hearing professionals in the fields of deaf education and the medical sciences have a history of attempting to train deaf children to think, act, and feel in the same way as hearing children. The sad indictment of this approach is that the deaf person often succeeds in the hearing world not because of education and medical advances but in spite of them!

Pathology or variation?

The pathologic model of deafness focuses on curing or ameliorating the perceived sensory impairment, whereas the difference model emphasizes abilities and equalities. Given an equal education in the least restrictive environment, the deaf child can do anything that a hearing child can do. In the words of I. King Jordan, PhD, the Deaf president of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., "The deaf can do anything that a hearing person can do, except hear!" Unknown to many, there are deaf lawyers, mathematicians, engineers, athletes, teachers, administrators, and movie stars.

The pathologic model embraces the idea that primary attention must be given to hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other devices that enhance auditory perception and promote speech. The difference model, on the other hand, focuses on issues of access to communication by means of visual devices and services such as teletypewriters (TTYs), video relay systems, television captioning, light signal devices, interpreters, and relay operators.

Educationally, the main concern of the pathologic model is producing intelligible speech by the deaf child. The goal of the difference model is that the child master the subject matter. Inherent in the difference model is the expectation that the deaf child be exposed to and master the same curriculum that is required of hearing children.