Hear and Now: How Park and Recreation Professionals Can Hear the Needs of the Deaf Community
Olivia, Gina, Parks & Recreation
Imagine riding the bus to your high school soccer game. Your teammates are talking about their weekend plans, your coach is giving last-minute instructions, and someone else discusses what player to look out for on defense. Although all these conversations are happening, you can't hear one single word. You're the only deaf student onboard, and the social aspects of recreation are foreign to you. Other than playing the game, you really don't know what it's like to be on a team.
For the past 30 years, the educational setting for most deaf and hard of hearing children has shifted from the deaf school to the mainstream. Today, approximately 80 percent of such children are mainstreamed. With the additional push for full inclusion, more and more are in their local neighborhood school with only a few, if any, deaf or hard of hearing peers.
This represents a change not only in the academic environment for deaf and hard of hearing children, but also in their social and recreational world. Up until the last quarter of the 20th century, most of these children were educated in residential schools for deaf children, most of which were founded in the late 19th century following the footsteps of Edward Miner Gallaudet and his deaf colleague, Laurent Clerc. Most older deaf adults look back on their years in those schools quite fondly, and will tell you that they had ample and excellent extra-curricular activities in settings with full access to the accompanying information-sharing and informal conversation. The culture of the deaf community blossomed in these schools. Today's youngsters who are mainstreamed have, in large part, lost this benefit, according to popular wisdom within the deaf community and according to studies that have asked these adults to share their perspective.
Studies on mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing children have also shed light on their social involvement and resultant self-esteem. Researchers have used sociograms (instruments that ask children to rate their classmates for likeability) to find that 75 percent of mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing subjects fell into the neglected category and none were in the popular category The findings show that the deaf and hard of hearing subjects had significantly lower self-esteem in three of five areas: academic competence, social competence, and behavioral conduct.
Author Claire Ramsey (who compiled extensive research for her book titled "Deaf Children in Public Schools: Placement, Context and Consequences") labeled a category of interactions between deaf and hearing children as "evaluations." These interactions were generally limited to instrumental communication, e.g. questions and answers about school work or expectations, with the deaf children doing the asking and the hearing children doing the answering. Ramsey summarizes her observation in no uncertain terms.
"For the purposes of learning and development, the interaction among deaf and bearing children in the mainstreaming classroom ... was highly constrained and not developmentally helpful," she says. "Few parents of hearing children would judge sufficient for their own children the personal contact and peer interaction that was available for the deaf second graders at [this school]."
The Solitary Mainstream--The Adult Voice in Retrospect
After asking 60 adults ranging in age from 24-60, who had been mainstreamed most of their lives to write essays about their experiences, four themes began to emerge: that there were certain teachers and classmates that stood out in memory as either wonderful or awful, that they rarely talked to people about their hearing loss, that the academic life was good but the social life was dismal, and that as adults they chose to learn sign and have friends who use sign.
"When asked to write further about the academic/social juxtaposition, the participants wrote extensively about a few more subthemes. It is these that may be of special interest to park and recreation professionals.
"Just sitting around and talking is not enough."
Extracurricular activities from childhood through high school are our training laboratories for successful social involvement as adults. That conversation about and during the activity is part and parcel of this training is something those of us who can hear simply take for granted. But for the deaf or hard of hearing child, it means that the extra-curricular experience is far less than it is for the hearing child who is privy to the accompanying conversation. They may be able to participate in the actual activity but generally are not able to access the simultaneous conversation. The 60 subjects of the survey profess that the solitary mainstream experience is sorely wanting as a social mileau. They echoed each other with the sentiment that successful involvement in extracurricular activities are needed by mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing school children, but that such involvement is hard to come by. Thus, the recreation profession ought to take note and come to the rescue.
One subject says, "Extracurricular activities allow peers to know you more. Excelling in something can help wm friends. Somewhat unfortunate thanks to society, peers (especially preteen/teenagers) seem to be wowed when a deaf student's talent is 'surprisingly' impressive."
Thus, extracurricular activities are especially important for the solitary mainstreamed deaf or hard of hearing child because they provide a structured setting in which friends can be made. An interviewee said, "My athletic prowess won the respect of other students and they needed me, therefore they learned to communicate with me. Had I not participated in sports, I probably would have struggled greatly."
"Just sitting around and talking" doesn't work, one participant declared. Hearing loss makes it difficult to follow and thereby participate in conversations when conditions are not optimal. Background noise, poor lighting, fast conversation, mumbling, chewing gum and more than one person talking simultaneously are all factors that make conversation problematic for someone relying on a bearing aid/ cochlear implant and lipreading. The child will perceive voices, but they will sound like mumbo jumbo. The lunchroom, hallways and locker rooms and most extracurricular activity settings are rife with these unfavorable conditions and thus undecipherable gibberish for the deaf or hard of hearing student. In addition to these unfavorable conditions, chatter in these settings is unstructured. Students could be talking about a TV program, a teacher, another student, a love gone bad, a love discovered, a new fashion, and so on almost to ad infinitum. If park and recreation professionals can center the chatter around the activity it would make it much more conducive for technology-assisted listening (e.g. hearing aids and cochlear implants) and lipreading.
"High School was really tough."
Participants commented that while interaction with hearing peers was relatively easy during the elementary years, it became more difficult in middle school and/or high school. While the adolescent years can be problematic for all youngsters, they may be especially stressful for a deaf or hard of hearing youngster.
This would suggest an especially great need for park and recreation agencies to be concerned with the social world of local deaf and hard of hearing pre-teens. One participant said about her experiences, "In a school environment where cliques abound and students have other things competing for their time (after-school jobs, sports, clubs, etc.), most youth do not have the maturity or desire to take time to communicate with a deaf or hard-of-hearing student. I had lots of friends up until the pre-teen years (ages 10-12). At that point, the social dynamics changed--there was more verbalization, less activity. They congregate at lockers, in the cafeteria, telephone each other, go away for weekends, etc. At this age, socialization provides about half of the education a student needs (how to relate to others, how to work in groups, learning and using various communication styles, etc.)."
"But he looks like he is participating just fine!"
Adults who are unaware of the myriad factors that impact how life appears through the lens and imperfect ears of a deaf or hard of hearing child will have a difficult time assessing the extent to which that child is having the kind of school or recreational experience they would expect for their hearing child. The coaches and follow students might think, "He is participating just fine," but the experience will be limited to just that, participation in the actual activity. The child will not be privy to the conversations that exist in and around the activity, and the coaches and fellow students will be unaware of the extent of this elusive isolation.
"It was great to be involved (I raced on the swim team, played lacrosse and volleyball), but with this involvement came a lot of stress. I always had a hard time hearing the coach yell the plays, hard time hearing teammates on the field, missed out on team gossip in between drills (particularly in the pool when I couldn't wear my hearing aids), would miss many of the team jokes and airways dreaded the team bus rides to meets because I could never follow all the chatter with all the noise on the bus (I would sit very quiet and feel invisible!!!). So due to this I did not really feel like I was part of the team," one deaf participant says.
Inclusion: The "Deaf Way"
Members of the deaf community have always organized their own social and recreational activities. One of their earliest efforts was the founding of the New England Gallaudet Association, founded in 1854. The alumni of the American School for the Deaf (Hartford, Ct.) were "desirous of forming a society in order to promote the intellectual, social, moral, temporal and spiritual welfare of our mute community." One great deaf orator, Henry Ryder, remarked at a gathering in 1877 that "[gatherings such as this] are to us, what the oases of the great desert are to famishing travelers."
Is it little wonder that in the 21st century deaf and hard of hearing adults are still choosing to spend their free time with each other, as evidenced by research? And if they are choosing such, should we not encourage and enable them to meet each other when they are still children? Can park and recreation agencies pick up the role that was once played by the deaf schools?
We can begin by taking some lessons from deaf adults and the recreation professionals who have engaged in a partnership with them. In Montgomery County, Md., a number of deaf parents have volunteered their time to promote, support and even create for their own deaf children so that they can benefit from the resources of public recreation without being the only deaf child involved. They have enrolled their children en masse in summer camp programs. Summer camp experiences planned in this manner ensure many deaf children along with the hearing children who would normally participate in the camp program.
Some deaf fathers have volunteered to coach sport teams that include their own deaf (and hearing) children, and they have recruited or organized such that other deaf children would be on this same team. With the latter efforts, the net result is a team with both deaf and hearing children, and a deaf coach. The Gaithersburg Recreation agency provided an interpreter in this situation, to assist communication deaf can the deaf coach and the hearing children as well as between the deaf children and the hearing children.
The deaf coach also purchased a number of inexpensive sign language books to give out to the hearing children. >From all reports, it was an exceedingly rich experience for all involved. "Probably the neatest thing was how quickly the relationships grew between the hearing and deaf girls. And how excited the hearing girls were to be able to learn some sign language," Pam Truxall from the Gaithersburg Park and Recreation Agency says.
"I love to coach! It was very inspiring for the deaf girls to see that a deaf adult can coach a team with hearing children on it!" says coach Dwight Benedict.
This model enables the park and recreation agency to exceed the status quo, "call us if you want au interpreter" by far in fulfilling their obligation to provide socially meaningful leisure opportunities to all members of the greater community.
Other ideas for partnering with the Deaf Community
Athletic involvement is very highly valued in the deaf community--recruiting deaf adults to serve as coaches is a relatively easy way to provide deaf adult role models to both all children and youth and to ensure that all-important critical mass of deaf/hard of hearing participants. But there is no reason to stop at this--there are deaf adults with other talents as well--arts and crafts are also very popular.
Another area where park and recreation agencies could be supportive is in organizing festivals. Many agencies sponsor cultural events that are focused on or showcase minority cultures. Staff are involved in planning events and/or celebrations that showcase the strengths, issues, culture and needs of certain racial and ethnic minority groups.
Why are there not programs that focus on the culture of deaf people, offered through public recreation agencies? Members of the deaf community are already themselves planning deaf festivals with no assistance from public recreation entities. Public recreation agencies could provide staff support to such grassroots efforts, as they do for other ethnic and minority groups. It seems logical and appropriate, fitting with agencies' commitment to supporting disadvantaged groups.
A third area for partnership involves teen clubs. Adolescents need a "fourth environment" as places where people go to hang out and chat--away from home, school, work. The conversation that takes place during this setting is critical to our sense of social support. Adults congregate in a coffee shops, or bars, or elsewhere, on some regular basis "just to talk." Adolescents do it also, in malls and on street corners and other uniquely designated venues. The "fourth environment" is defined as "beyond home, school, or work," and is a place for us to discuss things and make sense of what is happening in our lives. For adolescents in particular an important element of these environments is the absence of adults.
The very few of the Solitary Mainstream Project participants who had sign language interpreters commented on how the presence of these adults impacted social engagement. While sign language interpreters in social and/or extracurricular activities may provide information that normally would be missed, there are distinct pitfalls and inherent limitations. Clearly, using an interpreter for peer interaction can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.
One participant said, "An interpreter is all well and good for the 'formal' kind of classroom communication that happens, but an interpreter is an adult and an artificial third party in the communication between deaf kids and their peers in the mainstream. Deaf kids miss out on informal chatter between their classmates because the interpreter's very presence creates a psychological barrier between a deaf student and his or her classmates that precludes the informal chitchat."
Ergo, deaf and hard of hearing adolescents need a fourth environment where they can communicate freely with all or most who are present. This would mean, again, bringing together a critical mass of teens from a larger geographic area than typically served. It could very well mean partnership with school systems and with neighboring park and recreation agencies.
A world where deaf parents commonly coach sports teams made up of both deaf and hearing children, and where annual festivals draw hoards of hearing people who are learning sign language is a typical "deaf dream," as we would call it. Children from all across the globe would grow up with a model of inclusion that truly does include them, that truly enriches their lives as well as the lives of their hearing neighbors. Teen clubs that bring together a critical mass of deaf and hard of hearing youth will go a long way to alleviate the negative impacts of inclusion. Then perhaps deaf and hard of hearing adults would have more good memories about their formative years in their local communities. And, more hearing youth and adults would have an opportunity to experience the Deaf Community and its culture in a positive light.
A Deaf Participant's Perspective
Below is an interview with Brittany Frank and Rachel Benedict, both deaf middle-schoolers from Maryland who traveled with their basketball team to another state for an inter-agency tournament. Brittany's father was the coach of the team, and helped the two adolescents feel more comfortable. Here they talk frankly about their experiences:
Q: What was it like for you to have your dad as the coach? How was that different from having a hearing coach with an interpreter?
Brittany: It was great having my dad coaching me and my team. He treats us all equally. I would prefer to have a signing coach because I can understand easier and faster. Having a deaf coach who can sign makes me very lucky. My experiences with a hearing coach with an interpreter were that sometimes the interpreters were very difficult to understand. I had some experiences joining hearing teams without any interpreters. I was so frustrated because sometimes I would be lost because I couldn't understand what I was supposed to do or what was going on. Also, I didn't enjoy being left out.
Q: Looking back on that weekend trip, how was the experience?
B: It was a great experience and I really enjoyed that weekend. I got to meet some new hearing friends. We had so much fun together. The hearing players were so enthusiastic to learn sign language.
Rachel: That was really fun and a great experience for me. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of that weekend is that I would love to do it all over again. Everything went smoothly and it was kind of a culture shock for me, especially when I was in a different atmosphere filled with so many different kinds of people--only one deaf person with me. I learned so much.
Q: On the bus, did you interact with the hearing girls or mostly with each other?
B: I think I interacted with the hearing friends more than my deaf friend because the hearing gals were so enthusiastic to learn sign language! Rachel and I were willing to teach them signs because it was fun seeing them being excited to learn. Everytime the hearing gals made some mistakes with the signing, they would laugh.
R: We stuck by our sides, but interacted with others, asked each other for help if we didn't understand one another.
Q: If you were the only deaf girl there, how would things have been different?
B: If I was the only deaf girl there, I would get more attention, but it would be nice to have another deaf girl there to support each other.
R: I would feel lost and helpless, I wouldn't really feel comfortable
How to Initiate Partnerships for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Youth:
* Scope out your resources: mainstream programs, deaf schools, sign language classes, college programs, deaf/hard of hearing organizations. Actively solicit activity leaders, coaches, sign language teachers, etc. Ask them to help you.
* Put a notice on your community newspaper that you are trying to locate parents of deaf and hard of hearing children to discuss possible recreation programs.
* Call, meet with, talk to these parents.
* Share information. Educating about the Deaf Community is everyone's responsibility. (offer a copy of this article, relevant books, Web sites).
* Set up a program--sports, sign language, outdoor activities. Strive for a critical mass of deaf or hard of hearing children (at least 20 percent of participants in any working group). Once you have a few to start with, continue to contact other parents to encourage them to involve their children as well.
* Plan some kind of informal and unobtrusive education for the youth.
Gina Olivia is an author of the semi-autographical book called "Alone In the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School."…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Hear and Now: How Park and Recreation Professionals Can Hear the Needs of the Deaf Community. Contributors: Olivia, Gina - Author. Magazine title: Parks & Recreation. Volume: 39. Issue: 5 Publication date: May 2004. Page number: 54+. © 2009 National Recreation and Park Association. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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