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Deafness and School

Expert Advice from Stanley D. Klein, Ph.D.

Q: How early should a deaf child start school? Is American Sign Language (ASL) very important?

A: Children with disabilities, including hearing impairments and deafness, can participate in early intervention programs as soon as the child is identified as having a disability. If your child is not yet of school age, be sure to contact a local early intervention program to find out what is available that could be helpful. In addition, children who are deaf need to learn how to communicate; they will not learn to speak naturally like hearing children do.

I hope that your child has had a thorough assessment of her/his hearing. Formal assessments of hearing by audiologists can begin as early as infancy. Learn as much as possible about the type of hearing loss your child has and about any other medical issues that may be related. The key issue is how well your child is able to hear speech.

When a child is born deaf, she/he will not learn to talk naturally. Some specific interventions will be essential for the child to learn to communicate with others (not necessarily via speaking) and there are differences of opinion about how to proceed.

In deciding about the best educational program for a deaf child, parents are likely to hear different viewpoints from professionals and parents. Viewpoints will vary in terms of the degree of emphasis on hearing and speaking language and the use of signs or gestures to communicate. Advocates of oral approaches will want your child to learn to communicate via spoken language, face-to-face, and may discourage the use of sign language. Others may recommend a Total Communication approach or a Bilingual-Bicultural approach. These approaches encourage a child to use all methods of communication including signs, speech, gestures, and hearing aids. Advocates of the Bilingual-Bicultural approach believe that American Sign Language (ASL) is the only complete visible language and that it is a different language than English. Most importantly, this approach believes that children should learn ASL as their first language. This means that parents and other caretakers will use ASL from the beginning.

My preference is for children to learn ASL. This means that their parents and caretakers also need to learn ASL. The complicated question is whether parents and caretakers should also speak to the child as they would with any other youngster or whether they should emphasize ASL as a first language with English being a second language. Since there is not yet clear research available to assist parents in decision-making, I suggest Total Communication based on the positive experiences of children growing up in homes in which two different spoken languages are used. Learning to communicate via ASL will not interfere with the learning of spoken language. Recent research in Europe encourages an appproach in which parents and professionals use their observations of the developing child to determine which language can be the child's first language. This removes the burden on parents who may feel they must make a choice of one method or another.

Learn as much as you can and then get started. You need not feel locked into any approach. Observe how your child is doing while you continue to learn as much as you can. If you start with one approach and you (and the best available professionals) observe that it does not seem to be working, you can try a different approach.

Please note that since I have not examined the child in question personally, my suggestions need to be reviewed with appropriate professionals who do know the child.

Stanley D. Klein, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

More on: Expert Advice

Stanley D. Klein, Ph.D., is the former Editor in Chief of Exceptional Parent magazine. A clinical psychologist and editor, Klein cofounded the magazine in 1971. Klein serves as a Research Associate in Medicine (Pediatrics) at Children's Hospital (Boston), where he teaches health care professionals about working with the parents of children with disabilities, with particular focus on the challenge of delivering difficult diagnostic news.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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