Communication Isolation as Reported by a Group of Deaf Texas Inmates

Article excerpt

Abstract: Most profoundly deaf children are born into hearing families and often are not exposed to accessible (visual-gestural) language within the home environment. Much incidental communication and instruction is missed as a result. This is a qualitative study evaluating the impact of communication barriers on ten deaf, incarcerated offenders whose primary mode of communication is sign language. Participants represent a range of ages, communication histories, and language abilities. Through interviews, participants' experiences in the home, at school, and in the prison environment were discussed. Study results indicate that common experiences of profoundly deaf, adult signing offenders are restricted early access to communication beyond routine activities, lack of signing male role models, being overlooked or faking success in school, and a need for continuing awareness and responsiveness to the communication needs of deaf offenders.

Keywords: deaf, communication, abuse, minimal language skills, inmates, incarceration, equal access, social identities, marginalization, qualitative analyses, personal narratives

"The hearing world does not understand deafness. It defies our assumptions and undermines our paradigms. Nowhere is deafness more complex, elusive and seemingly unknowable than in the area of our language."

(LaVigne and Vernon, 2003:851)

Most profoundly deaf children are born into a unique linguistic situation (Mitchell and Karchmer 2004). Hearing loss prevents them from acquiring the naturally-occurring, spoken language of their parents. Without access to language, they are unable to fully participate in the family interactions that are so crucial to language development. Children who are deaf are at a high risk for delays in communication and language development, poor academic achievement, delays in critical thinking skills, and problems with social and emotional development because of the central role that language plays in these essential areas (Rall 2007). The purpose of this paper is to review the communication histories of ten deaf inmates who use sign language for themes relating to social isolation and its effects.

REVIEW OF LITERATURE

While many members of the deaf community share a language and a culture, their cultural identity and psychosocial needs are not always the same. Diversity of language skills, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, race, and level of overall disability are as common for deaf people as they are for hearing people. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus solely on persons who are severe-to-profoundly deaf and who rely on sign language to communicate.

Language and Social Isolation

The social dimension controls early uses of language , and the social setting in turn provides validation and confirmation of the child's effectiveness as a communicator; a skill that is referred to as communicative competence (Hymes 1972; Rice 1989). Social Identity Theory (SIT; Tajfel 1981) posits that members of minority groups achieve positive social identity by either attempting to gain access to the mainstream through individual motivation or by working with other group members to bring about social change (Bat-Chava 2000).

Deaf people may experience social rejection by both the hearing and deaf communities. This phenomenon is often termed marginalization and is hallmarked by an inability to gain acceptance and form social connections with any affiliated group. Without the support of a community of like-minded people to work together to achieve greater social change, the resulting isolation may impede the development of positive social identities for these deaf individuals. According to SIT, individuals will retain membership in a group if it contributes to their feelings of positive social identity. If group membership does not support these feelings, the individual will attempt to leave the group, either physically or psychologically. …