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The debates on disability and EP work with deaf children 

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Former Children’s Minister Sarah Teather recognised the value of EPs during a discussion on funded training arrangements in parliament and argued that EPs play a valuable role in working as part of early intervention projects with children and parents in schools.

The government wants children from vulnerable groups and those who would make progress if given extra support to be able to access the support and professional insights of EPs (Hill, 2013). Indeed, the continued reform of the legislative context has offered EPs the opportunities to develop new and different ways of working with a variety of children and young people in community-based settings, for instance those who are facing social exclusion. 

What is ‘disability’? Debates regarding the medical and social models of disability

From the viewpoint of the medical model, ‘disability’ has been understood as “an impairment to the bodily structures, including the mind, and can be caused by injury or illness” (Forhan, 2009, p. 1383). There have been critics of the medical model due to the influence it might have on the self-image of ‘disabled’ individuals’; for instance, they may view themselves in negative ways, and consider themselves as ‘patients’ who rely on numerous medical interventions (Albert, 2004).

Criticism of how the medical model conceptualises disability eventually resulted in the social model of disability (Albert, 2004). Under the social model, disabled individuals are considered so, not owing to their deficits, but rather the social, economic, and cultural burdens which have been imposed on them by society (Albert, 2004; Bunbury, 2019; Hughes, 2010; Olkin, 2002; Smart, 2001; Shakespeare, 2006). The social model imposes a moral responsibility to tackle the barriers which disabled individuals face, and provide equal access to services and facilities, for instance by remodelling public service buildings and transport to make them more accessible to disabled individuals (Hughes, 2010; Shakespeare, 2006; Shakespeare & Watson, 2001). 

While the social model of disability states that society must become more accessible to disabled individuals, those who highlight the importance of intersectionality (i.e. the intersections of race, class and gender) claim that this may be insufficient (Hadgle & Hodge, 2016) as the social model of disability can fail to take into account the different types of oppressed states (Fitzgerald, 2006; Oliver & Barnes, 2012). In other words, the social model can ignore differences among disabled individuals and the intersections of prejudices about matters such as sexuality, race, age and gender (i.e. white, heterosexual men tend to dominate the disability movement) (Albert, 2004; Emery & Iyer, 2021; Hadgle & Hodge, 2016; Oliver, 2013).

There is a growing interest within disability research in addressing the intersections of different types of oppressed states such as gender, class, disability and race (Emery & Iyer, 2021). A study found that deaf children from families living in poverty have the lowest academic achievements (O’Neill et al., 2014) and have higher chances of experiencing delays in installing Cochlear Implants (CI) and intervention, which may influence the development of their speech and language skills (Ching et al., 2017; O’Neill et al., 2019). These studies offer insight in to how deaf individuals’ experience is linked to institutionalised racism and classism, and thereby cannot be separated from multiple relations of power (Emery & Iyer, 2021).

Deafness and disability 

Lane (2002) suggests that the discourses of being deaf are based on a set of meanings constructed by society and that one of those meanings is that deaf individuals have deficits in a crucial sense and so in many different cultures, deafness means that these individuals may face restrictions in accessing employment and education (Lane, 2002).

According to Foucault, “discourse is a place where statements (the basic units of discourse) co-occur with their non-discursive environment, for instance, economics and institutions” (Foucault, 2014, p.100). Foucault suggests that individuals, who because of their disability, are likely to be marginalised by society, or indeed integrated with the help of proper equipment like wheelchairs or through the removal of barriers within infrastructure (Pezedk & Rasiński, 2017). Yet, prevailing discourses generally revolve around ‘normativity’, for instance, “walking is considered normal whereas using a wheelchair is not” (Tremblay, 1996, p.159).

Nevertheless, what does deafness mean to deaf people? The term deaf could mean different things to deaf individuals with their own culture and language, and if cultures are led by ‘able’ individuals who value being able to hear, should we also consider that being deaf is valuable in deaf cultures (Lane, 2002)?

Some deaf people have rejected the idea that they are ‘disabled’ and want their ‘deficit’ to be viewed in a positive way as part of who they are. Deaf individuals value their distinct identity and would like to inclusion within society bringing their unique culture and language (Lane, 2002). Nonetheless, it is crucial for professionals to think critically about the definition of disability (Hadgele & Hodge, 2016). According to Barton (2009), the language which ‘able individuals’ use to describe disabled individuals affects how they interact with disabled people and their expectations.

Deaf children’s achievement

In the UK, “approximately 1:2700 children are deaf from birth” and these prevalence rates increase to around “1:1000 with the addition of children with deafness starting in the first year of their life” (Hindley, 2005, p.115). Around 95 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and a significant number of them will join the deaf community, interact with others in a visual way using British Sign Language (BSL), and often experience oppression and discrimination from society (Hindley & Kitson, 2000).

In a study exploring poverty and deafness (O’Neill et al., 2019), one parent said that she would like her deaf daughter to receive auditory verbal therapy (AVT) as an early speech and language intervention. Unfortunately, this therapy was far away from where she lived and she raised money to support the travel expenses, which delayed her daughter’s intervention for around two months. Being able to make decisions on time is important because it has an impact on whether deaf children can be successful in learning languages (Ching et al., 2017).

O’Neill et al (2014) states that “Deafness across different categories, which includes mild and moderate deafness, has a negative impact on achievement” (p.57). Regarding GCSE results, compared with hearing pupils, deaf children underachieve by over a whole grade per subject (National Deaf Children’s Society, 2019). In 2020, compared with 49.9 per cent of all pupils, only 35 per cent of deaf children achieved a grade 5 or above in subjects such as English and Maths (National Deaf Children’s Society, 2019). As we can see, deaf children are more likely to academically underachieve, compared with their hearing peers.

However, according to National Deaf Children’s Society (2020), the gap in GCSE results is related to the UK government’s failing to provide support for deaf children to solve the difficulties that they experience in education. Most deaf children find themselves academically underachieving before they transition into secondary settings. The situation of deaf children underachieving in GCSE is worsening due to the COVID pandemic and deaf children cannot access most of the learning resources when learning from home without translation (National Deaf Children’s Society, 2020).

Critical Reflection 

Through working with a deaf child and her parent, I have developed an understanding of the impact of life experiences and culture on language. While some parents may prefer professionals to refer to their children as ‘deaf’, others may find the term ‘deaf’ offensive and prefer professionals to use the term ‘hard of hearing’. The wording which professionals use to describe children in their reports and documents may have a continuing impact on children because they may read the documents and reports when they grow up. As mentioned above, the language which ‘able individuals’ use to describe disabled individuals affects how their interactions and expectations (Barton, 2009). Thus, when working with deaf children, it is valuable to check with the parents how they would like professionals to describe their children.

I have written this article because I have discovered that some parents, especially families who are living in poverty are unaware of the special provision for deaf children. This speaks to the importance of both the accessibility and promotion of early interventions and specialist provision for deaf children. In addition, it is also important for us to reflect on what disability is, and the language that we use to describe disabled individuals.


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