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The Effects of Language Deprivation and the Lack of Deaf Role Models for Deaf Children on their Development of a Deaf Identity and Entrance into the Deaf Community:

Alyson L. Rafferty, November 12, 2019



Language deprivation and lack of access to appropriate Deaf role models negatively affect how Deaf children view Deaf culture and entrance into the Deaf community.  Deaf children are typically born to hearing parents who are unaware of their options for language acquisition for the child, which unintentionally leads to language deprivation. The lack of incidental learning because of inaccessible language coupled with late exposure to language usually causes the Deaf child to be delayed in school and social situations. Role models provide a positive influence of Deaf successes in school and life and showcase unlimited ways to be Deaf in a hearing world. If a lack of positive perceptions of Deafness is present while the child is developing the negative stigmas tend to be internalized and will create barriers for entrance into the Deaf community. These negative stigmas can cause a delay in the acquisition of a healthy Deaf identity. A positive Deaf identity can affect life outcomes.



The Effects of Language Deprivation and the Lack of Deaf Role Models for Deaf Children on their Development of a Deaf Identity and Entrance into the Deaf Community


            A child is born; the parents are ecstatic; the nurse comes back with the baby and informs the parents that their baby failed the hearing test. Depending on who the parents of the deaf baby are they might be delighted or heartbroken. Deaf adults who have Deaf children are thrilled that their child did not pass the hearing test because for the Deaf parent(s) it means the preservation of Deaf culture and the use of a preferred communication method. However, Deaf parents having a Deaf child is rare, about 1 in every 10 Deaf children are born to Deaf parents. On the other hand, hearing parents are typically devastated to find out their newborn is Deaf. As a member of the hearing world, they are unable to imagine a life without sound. They believe their baby is broken or impaired and want to fix their child so they can hear like them. This is a dangerous mindset that can lead to serious issues with the child's education, identity formation, entrance into the Deaf community, and understanding of Deaf culture.

            Hearing parents who have never met a Deaf person before have difficulties figuring out the best route to develop a language with their Deaf child. The doctors and audiologists will often inform the parents that if they choose to use American Sign Language with their child that it will delay their ability to speak. So, the parents try to pursue other methods such as devices that use residual hearing in order for their child to learn how to hear and speak. Other parents may choose to wait until their child is of school-age; they may feel that they can understand their child's needs and that is adequate. Extreme views on both sides based on ideology create pressures for parents that might jeopardize the real developmental needs of deaf children (Humphries, 2012).

            Many parents of deaf children tend to follow what the doctors or audiologists tell them, there is a problem with this approach. The lack of training and coordination among professionals leads to a great deal of misinformation about the use of speech and ASL with deaf children. Specifically, many medical professionals do not fully understand the ramifications of promoting speech-exclusive approaches and denying ASL exposure to a deaf child (Humphries, 2012). The parents then are left to decide on a crucial part of their child's future with only half of the pertinent information. When the child is born if the parents do not choose to learn and use a visual language with their child, the child will start on a path of language deprivation. When access to a language is withheld from a child it is called language deprivation. Parents of Deaf children do not intentionally try to deprive their child of language but by not learning an accessible language such as ASL or expecting the child to be able to learn how to speak and hear like other hearing children forces the child to struggle in hearing-centric environments.

            For children, possessing a solidified foundation in a first language is crucial for fluency in any language. "Children acquire language without instruction as long as they are regularly and meaningfully engaged with an accessible human language" (Humphries, 2012). Research has been conducted about the importance of the acquisition of a first language. The study showed that children who do not possess a firm foundation for their first language may have trouble in other areas. For example, a visual picture was described as follows, if you want to build a sturdy sidewalk you need to have cement evenly poured, similar to how a child needs a solid understanding of their first language. Then, when adding another layer, if the initial layer of cement has gaps, the second layer will fill into the gaps and result in varying levels of sidewalk instead of two consistent layers.

This is similar to how the child who does not have a firm first language foundation would be where the gaps are would cause more issues and misunderstandings as they develop and acquire more knowledge and a second language. "Cognitive activities that rely on a firm first language foundation such as mathematics, and the organization of memory are then disordered or disrupted" (Humphries, 2012). Also, language deprivation diminishes one's educational and career possibilities, because literacy is linked with the cognitive factor that is affected by a first language. Psychosocial problems are also common in children who are linguistically deprived because of isolation and frustration from one's experiences from limited capabilities. The inability to express oneself easily and to understand others completely can cause more social-related issues that can affect acquisition of a positive deaf identity and entrance into deaf culture (Humphries, 2012).

Children who have not acquired a first language in their early years may never be completely fluent in any language. The plasticity of the brain in children makes it easier to learn languages (Humphries, 2012). The contrast between hearing children and Deaf children is that Deaf children born to hearing parents that choose to not use ASL are at a disadvantage compared to hearing children with hearing parents irrespective of language. Hearing children are exposed to what is called ‘incidental learning' simply through their access to spoken language. Children who have the ability to hear are actually initially exposed to language in the womb because they can hear the mother or father talking. Unless the parent of the Deaf child chooses to learn ASL they will not have the same early exposure to the language as the hearing baby because ASL is a visual language. The Deaf child will miss out on incidental learning from its environment because it has no access or exposure to language.

Linguistic deprivation carries a plethora of problems with it, all that rely on a firm first language foundation. An alternative to speech-exclusive approaches to language acquisition exists in the use of ASL, where acquiring ASL is similar in time constraints of the development of a spoken language. The issue is that this debate is framed in an ‘either-or' perspective. This leads to a highly polarized conflict about which language families should choose for their deaf children. The significance of this topic results in little tolerance for alternatives by either side. In addition to, widespread misinformation about the evidence and implications of both approaches (Humphries, 2012). If they miss the critical period for exposure to a natural language, their development of cognitive activities that rely on a solid first language might be underdeveloped, such as literacy, memory organization, and number manipulation (Humphries, 2012). For a Deaf child, it is difficult to try to acquire a healthy Deaf identity and enter into the Deaf community when ASL is not promoted by family members or educators and the child has no language foundation. 

Inaccessible language leads to other delays when the child is of school-age. One of the first developments of children that have been extensively researched is the Theory of Mind. This theory is the ability to attribute false beliefs. ‘Research has shown that children who are Deaf have significant delays in their understanding of Theory of Mind…the lack of access to conversations in the environment causes Deaf children to miss important information about the world" (Schick, 2002). Although the researchers noted that because the Deaf children do not have sufficient language to understand while being tested, they may indeed possess a Theory of Mind. Another research study related to Theory of Mind in Deaf children discussed how the use of a sign language should give Deaf children an advantage because the ability to attribute false beliefs is rooted in mastering visual perspectives and sign languages are visual languages. However, early exposure to language also plays an important factor. The study results showed that early exposure to a linguistic system and use of a sign language was the most favorable situation. Also, the consequences of lack of early exposure to language can be partially alleviated with exposure to a sign language and late exposure to a sign language is more beneficial in catching up than only exposure to an oral language (Courtin, 2000). There is misinformation being shared about the speech-only approach.

When a Deaf child is only exposed to an oral language this, in turn, may cause them to internalize the view that deafness is bad. Without exposure to other Deaf children and adults the child may attribute the negative stigmas that society places on Deaf people as either related to them or that because they are oral, they are better than non-oral Deaf. Later down the road, when the child is becoming an adult if they learn about the Deaf community and culture and want to participate, they may face challenges overcoming the false rhetoric they believed and valued as a child about themselves and the community. The parents who chose the method that includes devices to try to help the Deaf child, such as a cochlear implant, has been shown to not offer an accessible language. Also, by the time it is clear the Deaf child is not acquiring spoken language with the device, the child may have already passed the critical period and is at risk for becoming linguistically deprived (Humphries, 2012).

If a Deaf child has language deprivation and the parents and or educator do not notice or attempt to try to help the child catch-up, the effects are longstanding. "The biggest barrier is access to early intervention, which leads to lower reading skills, vocabulary, spelling, etc. … too many of our middle school and high school students come to school without a strong language foundation … we have to fill in too many gaps" (Szymanski, 2012). In school, there is limited expectations placed on the Deaf child from professionals which are transferred to the parents and eventually internalized within the child. The expectations are often set low because the inaccurate belief that deafness and lesser degrees of hearing loss are an excuse for not providing the opportunities and tools to foster successful achievement (Szymanski, 2012). A solution that requires very little but makes a significant difference is the Deaf child having support from their parents at home. In addition, educators and parents of Deaf children understanding what a fully accessible, linguistically rich learning environment looks like supports the child's language acquisition (Szymanski, 2012). Linguistic deprivation constitutes multiple personal harms and harms to society. For example, costs to our medical system for the implantation that was not effective, therefore, unnecessary and potential productive societal participation is limited because the child is not able to hold a conversation to the extent of other adults who were not deprived of a firm first language foundation (Humphries, 2012). Avoiding and/or minimizing language deprivation is the first step in supporting a Deaf child's Deaf identity formation and entrance into the Deaf community. Although, another important factor is discussed next.

Like any child irrespective of hearing ability having a role model to look up to that has similar social factors is beneficial to the child developing a healthy identity and visualizing themselves as a successful adult. The same idea is favorable for Deaf children to have a Deaf role model. Children begin to develop a sense of who they are as young as three years of age, adult role models are critical to healthy development (Golos, 2018). Deaf role models not only help the Deaf child when they are young but also as they become adults. Role models can create interpersonal bonds within an established network of peers, and act as a bridge between the Deaf child and resources outside her/his environment (Cawthon, 2016). Role models can serve as agents who use their own social membership, status and experience to benefit and empower younger Deaf who have unequal access to resources (Cawthon, 2016). Deaf role models for Deaf children can showcase their fluent ASL skills and affiliation with the Deaf community which in turn will encourage the Deaf child's language and identity development, moreover Deaf role models that are affiliated with the Deaf community will help to build the self-esteem and pride about being Deaf  (Golos, 2018).

Lack of appropriate role models for Deaf children causes many detrimental effects. For example, having exposure to a fluent language model is important for the developing child because it provides a foundation for identity development. If the language role models are non-existent it can impact the child's academic success and social-emotional well-being (Golos, 2018). The role models also provide cultural perspectives of deaf gain instead of the pathological view. The pathological perspective presents deafness as a deficit and possesses audist and oppressive views, which impact how the child views themselves (Schick, 2002). The pathological perspective can also pervade from the child's surroundings view of deafness. "The predominant perspective surrounding the child, i.e. parents, school, can have strong and lasting impacts on how they grow to see themselves and interact in both hearing and deaf worlds" (Golos, 2018). Physical role models are only one aspect of representation. When children see visual messages of either social visibility or invisibility this plays a part in the view the child receives (Humphries, 2012).

In a study of representation in public school classrooms of Deaf culture, the books the teachers would read thinking they were representational of the Deaf community would actually present deafness from the pathological perspective. For example, the deaf character in the book would be isolated, scared, or in danger because of their inability to hear and then would get a hearing aid or cochlear implant and function successfully rather than showing Deaf culture, the community or ASL. Of the books that did have some cultural aspects of deafness, they still included pathological ones, creating a conflicting message. While ASL related material is becoming more developed, it is mainly for the use and benefit of hearing children (Golos, 2018). For deaf children who grow up in a pathological environment, they may grow to feel deficient or as though they need to be fixed. When the adults around them portray deafness as negative or disability instead of valuing ASL as a true language and critical to their education this may have long-lasting effects (Golos, 2018).

A true cultural environment embeds early exposure to a fluent and accessible language, ASL, and portrays the value of ASL and bilingualism (Golos, 2018). The results of the study showed that what deaf children experienced did depend, at times, on the characteristics of the teacher. Such as, if the teacher was hearing, the ASL skill level, and the program's primary mode of communication. For early childhood educators, it was uncommon to have Deaf adults come to their classroom regularly or discuss the Deaf community and aspects of Deaf culture frequently during the week. The educators who reported they used ASL claimed to have a Deaf adult come to the classroom several times per week compared to the educators who used total communication reported having Deaf adults come to the classroom less than once a week. An appropriate quote from this study is "visibility affirms reality while invisibility erases identity and experience … invisibility may lead to a negative sense of self and self-worth" (Golos, 2018).

For developing Deaf children, the factors that contribute to a cultural community wealth include social and linguistic resources and support to help children grow and learn successfully (Golos, 2018). For a deaf child to fully understand the positive influence of the Deaf community and culture Deaf role models are essential, because they are capable of demonstrating positive perceptions of what it means to be Deaf and can showcase unlimited ways Deaf people are successful in school and life (Golos, 2018). Mainstreamed Deaf children typically graduate from high school with profound delays in literacy and it is suggested that these delays are from insufficient early access to ASL (Golos, 2018). In order to combat this, public school teachers should be fluent in both ASL and English and use bilingual strategies to help children make connections between languages. This is dependent on a firm first language foundation (Golos, 2018). Another way to avoid Deaf children from growing up isolated from their Deaf identity and clueless about Deaf culture is for the teacher to invite Deaf adults from diverse backgrounds into the classroom on a regular basis and showcase books and media with characters portraying positive and accurate messages about deafness and Deaf culture. In addition, playing with the language, ASL, with the children through instructional activities such as ASL poetry, handshape games, ABC or number stories. These activities are not only providing positive exposure to an accessible language but also reinforcing Deaf cultural traditions of ASL poetry and storytelling (Golos, 2018). The acquisition of a healthy and positive Deaf identity can affect life outcomes.

            Research has paid attention to how Deaf identity affects life outcomes such as psychological well-being. The different forms of identity such as Deaf, hearing, bicultural and marginal are associated with levels of psychological well-being among other things (Chapman, 2016). Deaf people have protested against a disability view of deafness as an impairment that should be cured, and instead argued that for Deaf culture as a unique culture with unique languages. The study focused on 4 different identified groups, Deaf, meaning to ascribe to Deaf culture and has a negative view of hearing culture, hearing, meaning to believe in deafness as a disability view, marginal, meaning the individual does not identify with either hearing or deaf culture and bicultural, where the person identifies with both hearing and deaf culture (Chapman, 2016).

A study investigated how each identity was associated with self-esteem, life satisfaction and other factors deemed indicative of life outcome (Chapman, 2016). The overall finding was that those with a deaf or bicultural identity outperform the other groups, but specifically, those with a stronger Deaf identity possessed higher levels of self-esteem. In contrast, the marginal identity group claimed have lower levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction (Chapman, 2016). Those with a deaf identity reported significantly better sign language abilities and greater hearing loss than the other three groups. And were less likely to have a cochlear implant (Chapman, 2016). Respondents with a marginal and deaf identity reported higher levels of feeling discriminated against. However, additional disabilities were found to also explain the psychological well-being score (Chapman, 2016). Another research study found that the deaf person's identity was associated with the type of school attended. Deaf schools were experienced as Deaf-cultural institutions where deaf children and adolescents developed a strong deaf identity. It also found that deaf individuals who attended mainstream hearing schools were more likely to have a hearing or bicultural identity (Chapman, 2016).

            Deaf cultural values and norms are important to understand in order to enter the Deaf community. One significant value of Deaf culture and the Deaf community is the use of ASL. Deaf culture advocates prefer the use of ASL and are actively trying to show the dominant hearing society that ASL is a true language with its own syntax and structure. Also, the advocates for ASL want to preserve the use of ASL which sometimes means actively protesting hearing devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants. People who want to be accepted in the Deaf community cannot place an importance on their residual hearing, speaking or hearing abilities because that is not a value in Deaf culture, it is a value in hearing culture. A child who is mainstreamed may not understand the difference in values between the two cultures because everyone around them is hearing, not Deaf.

            Another value present in Deaf culture is the sharing of information. For a deaf child growing up in a hearing family and mainstreamed at public school, they can relate to missing parts of conversations and information because of the inaccessibility of the language used. All deaf people have experiences like this. The difference between the mainstreamed kid and the deaf residential school kid is that once the residential school kid arrives, they begin to learn about the information sharing cultural aspect. The mainstreamed kid may have internalized the responses they often received such as, "I will tell you later" or "it's not that important." If the deaf child who was mainstreamed continues this when trying to enter the Deaf community, they may be met with resentment and anger because that is the hearing way. In response to the hearing world, the Deaf world has decided to openly share any and every ounce of information they know with each other. 

In conclusion, when hearing parents give birth to a Deaf child, they should do their own independent research from Deaf-friendly sources and sites. They should not rely on the doctors and audiologists to provide them all the possible options or to have accurate information about Deaf people, Deaf culture or the Deaf community. When parents choose to not learn a visual language such as ASL and use it with their Deaf child they are causing language deprivation which has many harmful effects on Deaf children's development. In addition to deaf children already being at a disadvantage because of incidental learning they are not able to be exposed too. Once the deaf child is of school-age if they are mainstreamed the teachers in the public schools need to re-evaluate their methods for teaching Deaf children about their culture and providing accurate role models. Deaf role models have several benefits for Deaf children, including showing the child the many avenues for success as a Deaf adult in addition to being exposed to cultural and traditional values within the community. Deaf children who grow up without access to a visible language or role models may struggle later in life in terms of psychological well-being, forming a positive Deaf identity and acceptance and entrance into the Deaf community. Parents of Deaf children should want to foster their child's healthy identity development despite them possibly not understanding what that identity or culture represents. But, similar to when people adopt children from other countries, they learn the culture and find adults who share that culture and expose their child to their history and roots and the same should be done for a Deaf child born to hearing parents.






Cawthon, S., Johnson, P., Garberoglio, C., et al. Role Models as Facilitators of Social Capital for Deaf Individuals: A Research Synthesis. American Annals of the Deaf J 2, 161 (2016)

Chapman, M., & Dammeyer, J. Significance of Deaf Identity for Psychological Well-Being.  OUP Academic (2016)

Courtin, C. The Impact of Sign Language on the Cognitive Development of Deaf Children: The Case of Theories of Mind. OUP Academic (2000)

Golos, D.B., Moses, A.M., Roemen, B.R., & Cregan G.E., (2018). Cultural and Linguistic Role Models: A Survey of Early Childhood Educators of the Deaf. Sign Language Studies 19(1), 40-74. doi: 10.1353/sls.2018.0025.


Humphries, T., Kushalnagar, P., Mathur, G. et al. Language acquisition for deaf children:  Reducing the harms of zero tolerance to the use of alternative approaches. Harm Reduction  9, 16 (2012) doi:10.1186/1477-7517-9-16


Schick, B., Villiers, J., Villiers, P., et al. Theory of Mind: Language and Cognition in Deaf Children. The ASHA Leader (2002)


Szymanski, C., Lutz, L., Shahan, C., et al. Critical Needs of Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: A Public Input Summary. Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center (2012).





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