Writing about Deaf identity in a short article is almost impossible, but an attempt must be made as is a crucial part of each deaf child’s wellbeing.

The term “Deaf identity” is often used in the Deaf community and is acknowledged by deaf adults as a good thing for deaf children to have. It must be hard for hearing people to grasp the importance of this concept, for a hearing cultural identity is acquired naturally from birth and is a major foundation for the psychological building blocks for children to develop their unique personal identities. Even before birth, hearing children hear and then learn the meaning of sounds, not only speech but environmental noise and even of silence. Belonging to a world of shared sounds makes for a common bond and allegiance, which every child must have in order to feel loved and valued. It is a basic human need, almost as important as water and food and the air we breathe. Research into identity development has found not having a sense of belonging can seriously damage children’s development, and it is a crucial human need to feel part of the family, school, friendships and the wider human society. This feeling of belonging leads us to become social animals and is the motivation for making relationships with our families and friends, and later, work colleagues. Language is one of the essential keys to cultural and personal identity. People construct their identities in the house of their language. Having a hearing identity, therefore, is paramount for hearing people, and yet it is an unspoken and intangible characteristic.

The urge to be the same as one’s family and peers is what drives all animals to survive, so deaf children are no different in this respect. This results in what DEX calls “think-hearing identity” where deaf children actually think they are hearing people (despite cochlear and titanium implants or hearing aids, and educational hearing loop systems). Usually all the children and adults in the deaf child’s life are hearing people, so she or he wants to identify with them and model their behaviour on them.

Whilst trying to mould themselves to a hearing identity deaf children also have to cope with “always calculate”: the daily mental crossword without pen and paper that all deaf people have to do whilst lip reading or trying to listen to sounds via artificial hearing aids. This is extremely stressful and tiring. Research has found that deaf children produce high levels of the stress hormone, cortisone. Further research on hearing children shows that a high level of cortisone during childhood can result in an impaired immune system in adult life.

Always calculate, whilst a necessary part of learning spoken language, should be balanced with BSL for ease of communication and for personal and group identity to develop and for wellbeing and safeguarding. DEX has met deaf children who are upset when the term “hearing impaired” is explained to them, as they assumed that this meant “hearing”. Also, many deaf children who have a Deaf identity through childhood because they attend or attended Deaf schools, still think that they will be hearing people when they grow up because of insufficient Deaf role models in their lives. For those deaf children who are moved to a resourced school (unit base with other deaf children) because of being unable to cope in a lone placement in their local mainstream school, the transition from think-hearing identity to a Deaf identity can be extremely painful and deeply traumatic. For others, they seize this change with joy and want to learn British Sign Language (BSL) immediately, but may then have mixed feelings as they realise this is a long learning curve for them.

Deaf identity development is a highly complex area that needs sensitivity and real understanding. DEX Directors have both personal and professional knowledge of the problems arising from a lack of positive self-concept, and the legacy this can leave into adulthood, affecting relationships, further education and employment. Research shows 61% of deaf mainstreamed children have mental health problems, and many have an underlying depression that is not detected by medical experts. From anecdotal evidence and DEX’s review, it is known that many deaf children are being bullied. In addition, many are fearful of school, of not understanding the curriculum and homework instructions and of not being able to socialise or make genuine and lasting friendships.

For deaf children, much work is undertaken to encourage deaf children to fit into the hearing communities, and this is of importance in order that deaf children can have a feeling of belonging to their hearing families and make friendships. Deaf children are assessed on how they communicate in acoustically controlled settings, i.e. audiology clinic, which do not mirror their school’s group settings, i.e. classroom, gym, school hall, playground etc. This gives a false assessment of their ability to hear in educational environments.

The government’s philosophy of the assimilation of deaf children into mainstream schools and the drive for deaf children to be integrated is a the normalisation process. This is understandable and, in part, essential, in order that deaf children are socially included in society, but at the same time aids can never confer on deaf children a hearing identity, since we are not able to hear in the same way as hearing people can, so we are unable to fully share this experience.

The deaf mainstreaming philosophy, therefore, is not working well. The danger of current mainstreaming practice is that deaf children are likely to feel that they do not belong to either the hearing world or the Deaf community as they have a think-hearing identity and so are in limbo and adrift. Often deaf children do not have access to a deaf peer group or Deaf educators, or have access to sign language.

Some education Support Services provide out-of-school clubs or occasional days of bringing together deaf children but this is insufficient for real and meaningful Deaf identity development.

How is it possible to confer a Deaf identity on the vast majority of deaf children who go to their local school with no other deaf peers? In some cases there may be another deaf child in the same school but there could be too much of an age gap or a gender difference, or lack of real opportunity to meet, for a sense of shared experience to emerge.

The answer is simple: there has to be a significant deaf peer group in the mainstream school, with our common language which is BSL.

For these reasons, DEX states that all deaf children of all levels of hearing loss should be bilingual, or multilingual, in spoken and sign languages. BSL is a natural language to deaf people in the UK, so all deaf children need to have exposure to it. This will enable bilingualism or multilingualism in spoken English and Welsh and BSL in order to have cultural pluralism and linguistic diversity. Bilingualism and multilingualism confer many benefits, some of which are divergent thinking, wider choice of employment, and biculturalism. Like any other language gives users a national identity, sign languages confer Deaf identity. For bilingualism to develop, children need exposure to two sets of fluent language users and language peers regularly.

DEX’s research has found that BSL is a severely endangered language (2014) because it cannot be transmitted by the majority of parents, who are hearing, from one generation to the next. This intergenerational transmission is crucial in order for any language to survive. The numbers of deaf children learning to sign is falling to an extremely low number, approximately 4,000 in the UK, which will prevent the language’s future development.

The quality of the provision of BSL as a teaching medium is reflected in the fact that most hearing professionals working with deaf children only have conversational level BSL. This is seriously holding deaf children back from accessing the national curriculum and developing dominant language skills, and would not be acceptable in any other language used in schools. Despite this, some teachers and non-teaching staff are dedicated and struggle against a lack of government funding and skilled management, which hinders continuing professional development or the recruitment of suitably qualified staff.

An essential requirement of parenting a deaf child is the full acceptance of their deaf child and should bring with it a sense of pride and value of the new skills family members can acquire, and the cognitive and cultural benefits achieved. In this way there is not a loss, but much to be gained.

The optimum way of enhancing a deaf child’s Deaf identity is to place all deaf children in bilingual resourced mainstream schools, and in bilingual Deaf schools with the mainstream school curriculum. This will enable biculturalism and bilingualism to develop for both deaf and hearing children in those schools, and the wellbeing of deaf children.

Recommended reading on bilingualism: Colin Baker’s “A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism” (2000) Clevedon; Multilingual Matters, and his other books on this subject.