28 March 2012

The Travis Syndrome: What Happens when Families Can't Communicate

Image courtesy ABC Family
This past season of ABC Family's "Switched at Birth" has featured many issues important to Deaf culture and education-- cochlear implantation, Deaf schools vs. mainstreaming, the insular nature of the Deaf community, whether or not a deaf person should make an effort to use his or her voice in the presence of hearing people-- and the particularly timely issue of the struggle of communication at home for deaf children of hearing parents.
In episode 19 "Write a Lonely Soldier" Daphne tries to help Travis, a new student at Carlton School for the Deaf, by getting him a job at the Kennish car wash.
 But Travis exhibits some anger management problems; he yells at Daphne for being a "traitor" when she talks to hearing people, and quits on his first day after a blowup over a rude customer.  But when Daphne goes over to his house to talk to him about it, she finds that Travis's home life is fraught.  No one in his family knows any sign language; they've given up on trying to communicate with him at all save for a few crude gestures, and so Travis has resigned himself to a life of anger and isolation.

Unfortunately this situation is far too common for many deaf children.  90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and many hearing parents, for various reasons, do not learn sign language.  Some parents have been told, falsely, that sign language will delay or prevent the development of speech. Other families pursue a strictly auditory-verbal method so their child will be "normal," or rather, more like them. In reality, bilingualism has been studied in-depth by scientists of late, and results show that bilingualism is undeniably positive.  Read more about bilingualism in our post ASL in a Bilingual Age, or check out this article on the research from Public Radio International. Even after extensive practice and with access to hearing technology, a deaf person will not ever have 100% access to spoken languageAnd while deaf people, through the use of speech therapy and hearing technology, can become successful at speaking and lipreading, there still remains a dangerous gap period in which the child has limited or no access to language. Learning to speak and lipread can be a long and sometimes frustrating process, and it doesn't make sense to leave a child with no means of communicating during this especially difficult time.

Keeping a child purposefully without language for any length of time can put him or her at risk for developmental delays, because with no language one is unable to organize one's thoughts or develop higher level thinking skills (Read the story of one man without language and his inability to think, then his development of language and subsequent decoding of the world around him at Neuroanthropology.)  Speech is not a language, it is just one vehicle for language (just as sign is a vehicle for language, just as it would be nonsensical for a parent to bar his child from speaking Spanish out of fear that he/she would never speak English) and to sacrifice a child's intellectual capacity in order to preference one such a vehicle over another is a great risk.

And, like in Travis's situation, this kind of isolation can have devastating effects. The results of recent mental health studies have been disseminating through the news circuit declaring that mental health problems and developmental delays are twice as prevalent in the deaf population. (Read the news article here.)  And while the headline is somewhat problematic, suggesting that deaf people are more prone to mental issues, the fact of the matter is, as the article later does suggest, that the issues overwhelmingly stem not from deafness in and of itself, but rather from isolation and communication frustration.  Just as someone kept in solitary confinement is more susceptible to mental illness, so too are deaf children unable to communicate with their parents in danger of the symptoms of isolation as a result.  Developmental delays also occur mostly because deaf children whose parents don't sign have no way of picking up language or information incidentally, and therefore do not develop a means for complex thought or self-expression.  They do not learn by overhearing or mimicking, as hearing children do, and are unable to complete multi-step problem solving tasks without the aid or the organizational system provided by linguistic structure.

Science speaks: Bilingualism benefits everyone, and since signed language is the only type of language a deaf person will ever have 100% access to, it is imperative that it is an integral part of a deaf child's communication plan, particularly in his or her formative years.  If it is ignored based on prejudice (sign as inferior to speech) or laziness (sign as a hard and time-consuming thing to learn) a child is at risk for problematic developmental and mental health, and a lonely and frustrating existence not unlike Travis's.


  1. I can't believe the use of sign language for a deaf child is even being argued. I assumed all parents automatically learned sign language because its an easy door to open and allow in communication. Teaching a deaf child to speak seems like making them adapt to an easier form of understanding for the hearing person. As a parent you teach your child to embrace their differences and be who they are, unless your deaf apparently. Then you need to try to be like hearing people and adapt to normal society. As a hearing person, with no family members that are deaf, I am still choosing to learn sign language because of all the times in my life I have meet a deaf person and been unable to fully communicate with them. I actually enjoy enriching myself with another language. So if a deaf person would like to learn to speak and read lips, as a secondary form of communication, more power to them. Forcing it on a child as their only means of communication doesn't seem right.

    1. Casper,

      Thanks for reading, and for your willingness to learn sign language to communicate with others. Unfortunately it happens far too often that families, for one reason or another, refuse to sign with their deaf children. Sometimes parents are even advised by doctors to stop signing, under the assumption that sign language delays the development of speech. The accusation is, of course, completely unfounded, the contrary actually having been proven by the latest research. You can read more about a mother's perspective on communicating with her deaf daughter in our latest interview with Rachel Coleman: http://www.redeafined.com/2012/06/asl-cochlear-implants-and-importance-of.html