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Identity of Students


Are You Deaf or Hard of Hearing or?

Perceptions of Identity in Students with Hearing Loss and Their Families

New Research from The Volta Review

By Megan A. Kemmery, Ph.D.

Have you ever judged a book by its cover only to find out, after getting to know the characters, the setting and the plot, that what you thought the book was about is different from what is on the cover?  We all do it—we make assumptions based on obvious first impressions.  Everybody reading this issue of Volta Voices can probably think of a time where the way they perceived themselves differed from how others characterized them. 

With this in mind, we set out to explore perceptions of identity related to hearing loss. The complete results of our study are available in the Fall/Winter 2014 issue of AG Bell’s peer-reviewed scholarly journal The Volta Review.

We were able to examine perspectives of identity related to perceptions of hearing loss in 10 participants—four students (ages 12 to 17) and their six caregivers/parents. The student participants all had hearing loss, communicated through listening and spoken language, and were educated in the general education setting. 

The participants answered questions about their identity and their hearing loss through in-depth interviews. Caregivers/parents of the students were included in the study because research shows they play a critical and crucial role in the identity development of their children (Cole & Edelmann, 1991; Jackson, Traub, & Turnbull, 2008; Schlesinger & Meadow, 1972).

DeaF or HearinG

The results of our study showcased a fluid continuum of identity types that included (a) hearing, (b) person with hearing loss, (c) hard of hearing, (d) hearing impaired and (e) deaf (medical definition). These identity types are in agreement with the earlier findings of other researchers (Glickman, 1986, 1996; Grushkin, 2003; McIlroy and Storbeck, 2011) and have already been established within the literature on deafness.

Kemmery.faceMcIlroy and Storbeck (2011) define the DeaF identity type as the cultural space from which individuals with hearing loss transition within and between both the D/deaf community and the hearing community, thereby encompassing a fluid view of identity—one where individuals can move from one identity type to another as they choose depending on the roles, interactions, and contexts or settings in which the individual engages. The capital F highlights the individual’s fluid interactions with his or her family members with typical hearing, whereas during social interactions with peers who have hearing loss and who use American Sign Language the individual is able to fluidly connect and identify with members of the D/deaf community/culture which results in a cross-cultural bicultural dialogue between sign language and a spoken or written language (McIlroy, 2010). 

However, the majority of the participants in our study chose the hearing identity type as the strived for or sought after identity type. To borrow from McIlroy and Storbeck’s DeaF identity type (2011), one could derive a new identity type used as the reference point for the current study participants as the HearinG identity type in that participants perceived identity—as related to hearing loss—as how well the students “fit in” with the hearing world.  The capital G highlights the fluidity that exists when the students shift from one identity type to another depending upon interactions with others, the context/setting and life experiences. 

Factors Affecting the Fluidity of Identity

The present study found three main factors that influenced which identity type was selected: interactions with others, environment/setting/context and life experiences (both those in the past and those they currently face). For example, for a student in a quiet classroom setting where he/she can access instruction and hear the teacher, he/she may select the hearing identity type, even though he/she has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. Yet in the noisy setting of the school cafeteria, the same student may struggle to access communication among his/her peers and may select a deaf or a hard of hearing identity type. This example illustrates that  identity is fluid and can change depending on these three factors.
Other findings in our study also point out that self-determined identity types, the notion of identity as a fluid concept, and a sense of management as well as a sense of resiliency all exist when selecting an identity type related to hearing loss. 

Right to Choose One’s Identity of level of hearing loss, the presence of listening technology or mode of communication, individuals have the right to select their own identity and define their own identity type. A diagnosis of moderate to severe sensorineural hearing loss does not automatically mean this individual or his/her caregivers/parents will choose the deaf or hard of hearing identity type. In choosing the hearing identity type, for example, the participants in the present study minimized the hearing loss by choosing not to recognize that aspect or trait of self (e.g., multicultural competence) or by compartmentalizing themselves, thus activating multiple identities through a process of differentiation and isolation based on context or situation (Roccas & Brewer, 2002).  Thus, in certain contexts, one group membership (e.g., the hearing identity type) becomes the primary basis of social identity, whereas other group identities (e.g., student, son, person with hearing loss identity type, baseball player) become primary in different contexts. For example, a caregiver/parent participant spoke of being proud of his son for overcoming obstacles and limitations but also spoke of his son’s hearing loss as not being a major factor by stating his son was just like others (without hearing loss). 

To bridge any potential gaps in self-determined identity types, communication is critical in trying to understand the perspectives of others. Tajfel (1982) reiterates that an individual’s identity derives from his/her knowledge of membership in a group combined with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership.  This is especially important to note due to others having a tendency to label the individual with hearing loss by the hearing loss which was incongruent with the individual’s perception of him/herself in multiple flexible ways as can be seen in the findings of this study. 

Always in Motion 

An individual may choose to identify as one identity type in one context and as a different identity type in another context or within differing interactions (Mead, 1934) despite the hearing loss remaining the same. Thus, one of the implications of the present research is for caregivers/parents, teachers and counselors to provide supports that foster independence and self-determination skills, and embrace all students as independent individuals who have the right to form their own identities. Further, expectations for students with hearing loss should be increased, and respect and acceptance of all individuals as fully capable human beings, regardless of hearing status, should be promoted.  

Manage and Persevere 

Management of hearing loss and one’s being able to persevere and “bounce back” from setbacks encountered was crucial. Through a sense of resiliency, student participants were able to more closely align with the hearing identity type and overcome difficulties associated with the hearing loss through use of technology, accommodations and information sharing pertaining to the specifics of the hearing loss, further underscoring the importance of teaching self-advocacy skills to caregivers/parents and students. Through reciprocity and exchanging of information related to hearing loss and communication needs, others will gain a better understanding of how individuals with hearing loss perceive themselves and how hearing loss is but one factor of who they 2
Finally, one must completely accept and understand oneself for advocacy, growth and change to occur for that individual (Landreth, 2002). Through recognizing all one is, or knowing how one identifies self, one is able to truly be the best version of oneself as can be seen by this statement from a student participant:

My hearing loss is a part of me and contributes to my overall perception of myself…I can appreciate and recognize everything that I am, including the parts that make me me.

When perceiving others—regardless of disability, special need, hearing loss or any other trait that distinguishes us—we must realize our perceptions may differ from the perceptions of the individuals and be respectful of differences. To be self-actualized individuals who advocate for ourselves we have to know how we define ourselves and be able to convey that to others. 

Caregivers/parents, teachers, counselors and other school professionals need to realize the way they view children may differ from the children’s own view of themselves and be able to apply this understanding to students in other populations (e.g., students with learning disabilities, autism, from other cultural and religious backgrounds). No matter whom we are studying or communicating with in life we must realize people are people first and not judge a book by its cover.

Cole, S. H., & Edelmann, R. J. (1991). Identity patterns and self- and teacher-perceptions of problems for deaf adolescents: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 32, 1159–1165.

Glickman, N. S. (1986). Cultural identity, deafness, and mental health. Journal of Rehabilitation of the Deaf, 20, 1–10.

Glickman, N. S. (1996). The development of culturally deaf identities. In N. S. Glickman & M. A. Harvey (Eds.), Culturally affirmative psychotherapy with deaf persons (pp. 115–154). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Grushkin, D. A. (2003). The dilemma of the hard of hearing within the U.S. deaf community. In L. Monaghan, C. Schmaling, K. Nakamura, & G. H. Turner (Eds.), Many ways to be deaf: International variation in deaf communities (pp. 114–140). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Jackson, C. W., Traub, R. J., & Turnbull, A. P. (2008). Parents’ experiences with childhood deafness: Implications for family-centered services. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 29, 82–98.

Landreth, G.  (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship. New York, NY:  Brunner-Routledge.

McIlroy, G. (2010). Discovering deaf identities: A narrative exploration of educational experiences on deaf identity. Saarbrucken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishers.

McIlroy, G., & Storbeck, C. (2011). Development of deaf identity: An ethnographic study. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16, 494–511.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self & society from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Roccas, S., & Brewer, M. B. (2002). Social identity complexity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 88–106.

Schlesinger, H. S., & Meadow, K. P. (1972). Sound and sign: Childhood deafness and mental health. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Tajfel, H. (1982). Interindividual behavior and intergroup behavior. In H. Tajfel (Ed.), Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 27–60). London, United Kingdom: Academic.

Source: Volta Voices, November/December 2014