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Educating Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing:
Residential Life, ASL, and Deaf Culture
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E558
Authors: Judith Gilliam and Susan Easterbrooks
What Is a Residential School, and Why Is it So Important to the
A residential school for students who are deaf has a
comprehensive academic, health, and socialization program
including dormitory living equipped for students who are deaf.
Most programs serve preschool ages through grade 12, although
some schools also have parent-infant, vocational, and outreach
services. Dormitories are divided according to age groups. All staff
and personnel are expected to communicate with students fluently
in all areas: academic, recreation, sports, leisure, field trips, and
residential settings. Next to coming from a deaf family or a family
with some fluent sign communication skills, many view residential
life as the ideal opportunity for students who are deaf to become
familiar with and enculturated into the Deaf community. In the
dining room, for example, students get direct and firsthand
experience of true dinner conversation, because the language of
the Deaf community, American Sign Language (ASL), is used. In
after-school activities students are on equal footing with their
peers, and communication is not a barrier to social life because
students do not have to depend on an interpreter, enabling them
to express themselves freely to their peers. The residential school
provides a great opportunity for socialization and is a great
environment for developing self-worth.
If a culture is defined as heritage, language, and a set of
customs and values shared by its members and transmitted from
one generation to the next, then the Deaf community truly is a
culture. Members of the Deaf culture are a group of individuals
who have a common heritage (historical events, famous figures,
art, literature, and scholarly organizations), a common language
(American Sign Language), and a set of customs and values
(cherishing Deaf children, expecting participation in cultural events,
valuing the visual world, protecting one another) (Padden &
Humphries, 1988). This heritage is passed on from one generation
to the next via the residential school, where they learn such things
as Deaf folklore and folklife (jokes, legends, games, riddles, etc.)
from other children, Deaf teachers, and Deaf houseparents. Most
schools for the deaf use some form of sign language (Padden &
Who Can Attend a Residential School?
According to the April 1996 issue of the American Annals of the
Deaf, there were 78 residential schools for the deaf or deaf and
blind in the United States with only four states not reporting a residential school. Most
students based on degree of hearing loss, academic needs,
parental choice, and other factors. Usually these schools have an
established relationship with the child's local education agency.
This issue of the Annals also reported that 21% of the population
that was studied attended residential schools. Many schools
accept children at about the age of three. For younger children,
participation in a Parent/Infant program administered by the school
provides much needed services until the child is ready to attend.
Residential schools are an alternative to placements in local
schools. Parents who are Deaf themselves often choose a school
for the Deaf over local schools because of the opportunity for their
child(ren) to participate in the life of the Deaf community and
culture. Hearing parents of children who are deaf seem to have
greater reluctance about sending their children because they do
not want to be separated from them (Scheetz, 1993). Separation
may cause feelings of guilt in the parents, confusion and
homesickness in the child, and depression in both, but once the
child has adjusted, he usually embraces the experience
wholeheartedly. Houseparents and classroom teachers are often
Deaf themselves, and a unique bond may develop between the
Deaf child and other Deaf members of the school and community,
where the child has access to role models who are Deaf.
How Does One Become a Member of the Deaf Culture?
The primary avenue by which a child with a hearing loss
becomes a member of the Deaf culture is through the residential
schools, but any child who has a hearing loss and uses sign
language can become a member of the Deaf community. Students
who are deaf and who attended mainstream schools must continue
to prove their allegiance to the Deaf culture if they have chosen
participation in adulthood (Reese, 1996).
What Are the Benefits of Residential School Placement?
Deaf students who are mainstreamed miss out on the feeling
of belonging that individuals from the Deaf culture associate with
their residential schools, and their experience is very different from
those who attend residential school. Mainstreamed students often
are singled out in many respects. Although they have access to
interpreters, notetakers, and other special assistive devices, they
still may be loners, especially in mainstream environments where
there are few other students with hearing losses.
The residential school acts as a melting pot for the majority of
the students. They are able to become personally involved with
those of same educational or interest levels. In school, with an
abundant number of students, they are able to be grouped
homogeneously, thus facilitating learning. Residential schools also
enhance competition among one another. The students are
exposed to deaf adults with various types of careers. The
residential school is the point of contact for the Deaf culture where
deaf students can pass on the stories or history to be shared from
one generation to another. Residential students are immersed in
the genre of deafness and exchange the mannerisms, the
differences, the values, the folklore of the Deaf culture.
The majority of graduates from a residential school develop a
strong bond with their alma mater. Going to homecoming games,
for example, is a thrilling experience. It is like a home away from
home. The alumnae also have a sentimental attachment to and
value the well being of the school.
What Are the Limitations of Placement at a Residential School
or Membership in the Deaf Culture?
This question is difficult to answer because the answer depend
on the perspective of the person answering. Many students who
have attended residential schools and who are members of the
Deaf culture will admit to some regret over missing out on a closely
knit family life but quickly add that the freedom of communication,
sense of belonging, sports and other group events, and
opportunities to experience success far outweigh the
disadvantages. From the perspective of people who hear, there
are concerns that the child who is deaf will have greater difficulty
adjusting to adult life due to learned dependency and limited
contact with the larger community. Further, the curriculum of the
typical residential school tends to be less rigorous than that of
other schools (Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996). Deaf culture
members are almost unanimous in their response that the Deaf
culture more than makes up the difference. In addition, because
many families live at some distance from the school, parents tend
not to participate in their child's education to a sufficient degree.
The choice of residential placement must be made with the child's
educational and emotional needs in mind, weighing the pros and
cons carefully and with the best interests of the child as a guide.
References and Additional Resources
ASL in Schools: Policies and curriculum. Conference Proceedings.
October 28-30, 1992, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC.
Lane, H., Hoffmeister, R., & Bahan, B. (1996). A journey into the
Deaf world. San Diego, CA: Dawn Sign Press.
National Association of the Deaf, 301-587-1788 (voice), 301-587-1789 (TDD)
Padden, C., and Humphries, T. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices
from a culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Reese, G. (1996). Personal communication. Atlanta, GA.
Scheetz, N. (1993). Orientation to deafness. Boston, MA: Allyn and
Schildroth, A., & Hotto, S. (1996). Changes in student and program
characteristics, 1984-85 and 1994-95. American Annals of the
Deaf, 141(2), 68-71.
Wilcox, S. (Ed.) (1989). American deaf culture. Burtonsville, MD:
The Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf (CAID) is
an organization of teachers who teach primarily in residential
schools. The Conference of Educational Administrators Serving
the Deaf (CEASD) is an organization of administrators who serve
primarily in residential schools. CAID and CEASD publish the
American Annals of the Deaf as well as newsletters. The
Broadcaster, published by the National Association of the Deaf,
provides a good glimpse into Deaf culture and residential life.
The CAID and CEASD presidents change routinely. A listing of
the current presidents and their affiliations is found in the annual April
issue of the American Annals of the Deaf. This issue
also provides a listing of all residential schools in the United States
and Canada and some in other locales. A contact number is given
for each school.
Judith Gilliam, deaf since birth, is the supervising teacher of the
lower school at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in
Talladega, Alabama and a former president of the Alabama
Association of the Deaf. Dr. Susan Easterbrooks is Associate Professor in the program
in education of students who are deaf/hard of hearing at Georgia
State University in Atlanta, GA.
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ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated,
but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding from
the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education,
under contract no. RR93002005. The opinions
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions of policies of OERI or
Department of Education.