Martine Monksfield, BATOD President explains the rationale for the ‘Moving towards using positive language around Deafness / Hard of Hearing’ document that she co-authored with Dani Sive (dDToD group)
A friend of mine, who is a Qualified Teacher of the Deaf (QToD), attended an audiology clinic appointment with her recently identified deaf* son (she has an older daughter who is hearing). When she asked the audiologist if her son was deaf, the response was “No, he has a hearing loss”. My friend is deaf and is a QToD herself. Fortunately, she is in an excellent position to develop language, communication, and importantly, a positive deaf identity in her deaf son. While we’re not sure of the intentions of the audiologist, it would appear using the word ‘deaf’ is seen as negative, or perhaps even reserved for a particular level of deafness (the son has a severe hearing level). Unfortunately, this recent event is not isolated, and I often hear of stories like this, not just from deaf parents. We want to change the narrative around the language used around deaf children and their families, for both deaf and hearing parents.
We believe that we need to approach deafness in a positive way, and we believe this starts with the language and terminology we use around deaf children, particularly when families are told their baby is deaf. Of course, there are issues and difficulties that come with being deaf, but we feel the majority of these issues are down to a lack of access. However, we do recognise for some deaf people who had hearing previously and then ‘lost’ it, their difficulties are different, and this should be recognised and supported in a way that meets their needs.
The document was written by Dani Sive, Head of Frank Barnes Primary School for Deaf Children, and me. It is a joint collaborative document between the d/Deaf** Teachers of the Deaf (d/DToD) group and BATOD, which has stemmed from decades of feedback around the negative attitude and language towards deafness in education, particularly around the use of ‘hearing impaired’. The aim of the document is to support QToDs in approaching their local authority (LA) services and settings. The response from d/Deaf teachers has been positive and many are using the document to approach LAs or resource bases, etc to change the names of support services (ie hearing impaired team/hearing impaired resource base) which is the primary outcome of the document for now.
Could this document also be useful for audiologists working with families of recently identified deaf babies too? I use the word identification rather than diagnosis as the latter is often used when referring to diseases or terminal conditions. We strongly feel deafness is not in that category. We know that in the early stages of the family’s journey in discovering their baby is deaf, that the language used around their deaf baby is so important, and it is crucial I make this point, too, that the word ‘deaf’ can be too much, too soon, at the identification stage, depending on the family’s needs. This could, perhaps, be down to the fact many families come to the identification stage with preconceived notions of deafness and what it means. While they can accept ‘deaf’ later on, it is a very sensitive period in the early stages, and we need to be mindful of this.
In America, they use the term deaf/hard of hearing to encompass every level of deafness and communication modality. In the UK, Dani Sive and I founded the d/Deaf teachers group in 2011, and it now has approximately 170+ members with a varying range of communication modalities and levels of deafness. We are very much promoting an ethos where everyone is included, and not separating deaf people on the basis of communication modality or level of deafness.
Since the document has been released, we have had feedback on it which was expected and really useful for us. We anticipate the document will extend and expand into other areas in the future but we are pleased to make this a solid starting foundation. One in particular was around the term ‘hearing loss’. We have not gone into detail on this other than an example of how to word levels of deafness positively as we find this can be tricky to word in a sentence so I suspect this may take some time. Please do continue to email me with your feedback at email@example.com
The point of the document is more for the bigger picture in relation to deaf education and approaching deafness in a positive manner, which we feel will impact on the work that we do with deaf children and their families. Therefore, as a deaf child grows up, hearing and seeing positive language around them would only serve to develop a positive and robust deaf identity regardless of their communication modality and level of deafness. It is not to push one modality of communication (spoken/signed) over another, nor to force a deaf identity on anyone, but merely to ensure deafness is approached in a positive manner for all communication modalities, and that families can feel reassured, from the moment their child is identified, if the culture around them is positive.
*I use the term ‘deaf’ to refer to all levels of deafness, including unilateral deafness.
**d/Deaf refers to both those who identify as ‘deaf’, use spoken language and are in the ‘hearing world’; and to those who identify as ‘Deaf’, are part of the Deaf community and mostly use British Sign Language.