Noah Hancock chats with other ASL students at the member retreat for the American Sign Language Organization at Western Kentucky University.
(About this story: Author Austin Rutland conducted some interviews for this story in American Sign Language. Please note that Deaf with a capital “D” is commonly used to refer to people and communities that use American Sign Language as their primary language, while deaf with a lowercase “d” is used in correlation to auditory status and deaf/hard of hearing individuals that use English as their primary language.)
By Austin Rutland
Noah Hancock sits at the dining room table, piled high with food and decorations, during Christmas dinner with his family. The table is set for 10, and his mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins begin to fill their plates with food.
As the rest of his family eats and chats, 16-year-old Noah’s eyes dart from person to person, trying to follow the conversation by lip reading. He furrows his brow and concentrates hard to catch what he can through the limited hearing from his cochlear implant, but the combination of multiple voices makes the conversation a blurred string of unrecognizable noises.
His family knows that he is deaf, but they sometimes forget to talk one by one to help him keep up. He can’t follow the fast-paced talkers in his family, and he struggles to make sense out of the cacophony of voices and other sounds.
Noah was born with hearing loss, and this confusion is a common occurrence for the only deaf member of the family. Exasperated, he looks down at his plate and eats in silence, feeling like the odd one out.
“Sometimes I try to follow the conversation, but I’m used to having to mind my own business and just eat,” Noah said. “At this point, that’s just how family events go for me.”
Noah is not the only child that grows up feeling left out of the loop.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, over 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Parents of deaf or hard of hearing children must make the decision of whether to raise their children with English or American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language, and whether to send them to a mainstream public school or residential school for the deaf. This decision affects the future of their children in terms of their language acquisition, education, identity, and social skills.
Noah was 2 years old when a staff member at his daycare suggested to his mother, Tammy Hancock, that she should get him tested for hearing loss. The staff member noticed that he had balance problems and would not react when she clapped her hands behind him. Test results showed that Noah was hard of hearing. Tammy said she felt like it was the end of the world.
“I was devastated,” she said. “It was a crushing blow. Traumatic actually.”
Tammy sought out help from speech language pathologists and audiologists to help her decide how to move forward with Noah’s language acquisition and education, but they gave her no information related to sign language or Deaf schools.
“The audiologists didn’t really push ASL,” she said. “It just wasn’t talked about. They talked about getting fitted for hearing aids, but nothing about sign language.”
Experts agree that early intervention is key for a deaf or hard of hearing child’s language acquisition. But some studies show that there is a lack of ASL education in the speech pathology field for parents of deaf and hard of hearing children.
A study from Oxford University showed that only 30 percent of early intervention programs have an educator for the deaf or related expert on staff.
However, Dr. Jo Shackelford, a speech language pathologist and coordinator of the Pre-SLP program at Western Kentucky University, says that professionals in the field do learn material related to sign language and are trained to consider several factors when consulting parents of a deaf or hard of hearing child.
These factors include the severity of hearing loss, hearing status of the parents, geographic availability of programs and providers, and the goals of the family, Shackelford said.
But she said she thinks that the field is moving toward a bilingual approach and encouraging the use of both ASL and English, depending on the family’s circumstances.
“I would hope that SLPs in the current time would have moved beyond the tendency of previous generations of health professionals to prescribe a solution (speaking only or ASL only) without inclusion of these factors and the input of the family,” Shackelford said.
Noah’s parents did their own research and found out that the only school for the deaf in Kentucky was in Danville, two and a half hours away from their hometown. They said they couldn’t bear to send him to a school so far away and only see him on weekends, so they decided to enroll him in a public school.
“We wanted him close to home, with us,” Tammy said. “It’s hard to even think about sending your child away at such a young age.”
Noah was immediately fitted for hearing aids and placed in speech therapy by the time he was 3 years old, to make his English easier to understand. While his ability to understand and speak English improved, he was surrounded by hearing peers that he struggled to communicate with.
“I benefit from both ASL and English, but with English I don’t always understand everything,” Noah said. “With ASL, there is more information involved and it is clearer to me.”
Tammy saw that he was struggling and decided to transfer him to a new school when he was in first grade. This school had recently hired a Deaf educator that began to teach Noah ASL. Noah said that he enjoyed learning and using sign language, but there were only two or three other deaf or hard of hearing students at the school. He felt out of place among a crowd of hearing students.
Noah had to rely on his hearing aids as well as lip reading to interact with his hearing peers and teachers that didn’t know ASL. However, even the most skilled lip readers cannot catch the majority of a conversation. According to a study done by the Georgia Tech Research Institute, the average person only catches about 30 percent of a conversation when lip reading.
Noah is not the only deaf or hard of hearing student that faced the struggle of being surrounded by hearing peers. According to a study from the Gallaudet Research Institute, 80 percent of the mainstream public schools involved in the study that serve deaf and hard of hearing students have less than four deaf or hard of hearing students.
Studies show that being a deaf or hard of hearing student surrounded by hearing students can cause feelings of isolation or a lack of confidence, especially in younger students.
A study done by the University of Nevada showed that low interaction or identification with the Deaf community can lead to lower self-esteem in deaf and hard of hearing students.
Noah’s parents also struggled to find accommodations for him in school. His grades and comprehension improved with the use of the interpreter, but there weren’t enough available interpreters in his small town.
According to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, many areas across the nation suffer from a shortage of certified ASL interpreters, and Noah’s hometown is no exception.
“You try and try to talk to the administrators and school staff, but there just aren’t enough interpreters in our small town,” Tammy said.
Noah continued to struggle communicating with his peers throughout elementary school, and when he started middle school, Tammy began to rethink her previous perspective on the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville.
She wanted Noah to be able to interact with other deaf and hard of hearing kids and develop his ASL skills, and suggested the idea to Noah.
“I thought that he would benefit from being around other kids like himself,” she said. “I thought being around sign language would build up his confidence.”
But Noah didn’t want to go to school two and a half hours away from home, so he decided to stay in public schools for the remainder of his middle and high school education. He said he felt like he was stuck in the hearing world.
Noah remained in the mainstream system of education, one of the two main educational paths for deaf and hard of hearing students. While mainstream students attend public schools with hearing peers, schools like the Kentucky School for the Deaf follow the residential system.
Students at residential schools stay in dorms on the school’s campus during the week, then go back home for the weekend. Residential schools support the use of ASL as the primary language for deaf and hard of hearing students, so all classes and activities are in ASL.
Karen Schulz, a teacher at the Kentucky School for the Deaf, appreciates the benefits of English to deaf and hard of hearing students, but firmly advocates that they learn ASL as their primary language.
“In those early childhood years, there is so much information that a deaf or hard of hearing child can miss if only spoken to,” she said. “The concepts, vocabulary and language that develops through ASL are so rich and very crucial to a child’s cognitive, social, and emotional growth.”
According to a study from Oxford University analyzing the effects of language on education and social skills in Deaf and hard of hearing students, “Deaf children who are exposed to signing at an early age perform better academically than those who are not.”
At age 16, Noah began considering getting a cochlear implant, which is a surgically implanted device that directly accesses the auditory nerve to restore a sense of hearing to profoundly deaf and severely hard of hearing individuals, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The device does not restore full hearing, but it helps the individual to recognize more sounds.
But there is a risk to getting a cochlear implant. The installation process completely destroys any residual hearing in the ear in which the device is installed. So if the implant is unsuccessful and fails to connect to the brain properly, the individual will lose their residual hearing for nothing.
Noah was not an exception, and he went completely deaf in his left ear. This lowered Noah’s overall hearing level, making him scientifically classified as deaf instead of hard of hearing.
However, the implant was successful, and after 2 years of more speech therapy and practice, Noah was able to use his cochlear to recognize sounds easier than before.
When Noah was a high school senior and it was time to pick a college, he began to consider attending Gallaudet University, the world’s only university specifically designed for deaf and hard of hearing students. But this would be a huge change, both for Noah’s education and social life.
From the outside, Gallaudet University campus looks like any other college campus, with buildings, residential halls, and various restaurants. They have sports teams, student organizations, and a wide variety of academic programs.
But walking onto campus is like entering the Deaf world, Noah said.
Classes are taught completely in ASL, and most of the students that go there have grown up signing and deeply involved in the Deaf community. Classrooms are set up in a “deaf-friendly way” with chairs and desks in a semi-circle around the professor at the front of the room. This ensures that everyone can see whoever is signing at all times.
Students, teachers, and staff all sign, all the time. Videophone booths are strewn throughout campus, allowing students and staff to make free video calls to friends and family, using a video relay interpreter if necessary.
While Noah knew some ASL, going to Gallaudet would be a shift from going to a mainstream school with almost all hearing peers that solely used English. Noah’s parents were also worried about him moving to Washington D.C. after growing up in such a small town. But they said they believed he would excel at Gallaudet.
“From what I had heard, Gallaudet is one of the best schools for the Deaf and hard of hearing in the world,” Noah’s father, David Blackburn said.
Noah went to D.C. early to participate in Gallaudet’s JumpStart program, a four-week summer program that helps new students transition into the college experience. It also provides ASL classes for deaf and hard of hearing students that need to improve their skills.
JumpStart helped Noah in terms of his ASL skills, but he tended to hang around with hearing students or other deaf and hard of hearing students that grew up with English as their primary language. He said he was more comfortable around them because they grew up in “his world.”
He also felt behind in his classes and felt pressure to keep up with the “Deaf-speed” signing that surrounded him. Many of his classes required homework assignments in signed video format, and he had never been required to do a project completely in ASL.
“I grew up speaking English, so it was like I had to catch up to the other students,” Noah said. “It took me a couple months to get used to the culture shock.”
While Noah said he enjoyed developing his ASL skills and meeting new people, he said he felt homesick and out of place amongst the Deaf students that had grown up fluent in ASL. He decided to transfer to Western Kentucky University after his first year to be closer to his family and back in the hearing world he grew up in.
“I liked Gallaudet but at the same time I grew up in the hearing world mainly speaking English,” Noah said. “I felt like I was in the middle of two separate worlds.”
Sylvya Boyd, an ASL teacher and Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI), went to Gallaudet University back in 1968 and said that it was a mecca for deaf and hard of hearing students much like it is today. Boyd was born profoundly deaf and used ASL as her primary language growing up, the opposite of Noah’s experience.
She said that she thrived academically and athletically at the Deaf residential schools she attended, and competed as a swimmer in the Deaf Olympics in 1965.
Boyd attributes her success growing up to ASL and advocates ASL as the primary language for all deaf and hard of hearing children.
“ASL should be their first language, period,” she said. “Without sign language, deaf children will struggle with communicating and learning.”
Noah said that going to Gallaudet made him see the benefits of being in an ASL environment, so when he came home, he pushed harder for his mother to learn ASL. He said he had tried to let him teach her before, but she never got around to learning. When he came back home from D.C., her reaction was the same.
“She wasn’t against it, but it was almost like she was making excuses to not learn,” Noah said. “I stopped asking her because I didn’t want to bother her or force her to learn ASL.”
But Noah is determined to maintain and improve his ASL skills. He is now a 20-year-old sophomore at WKU studying History and ASL Studies. While he already has strong ASL skills from attending Gallaudet University for a year, he decided to take ASL 1 and 2 classes this year to give him a better foundation in the basics of the language.
He is also involved in the American Sign Language Organization (ASLO), a student-led organization at WKU that strives to help raise awareness about ASL and Deaf culture on campus and in the community. He frequently volunteers at the Kentucky School for the Deaf and was recently elected as Community Outreach Chair for next year’s ASLO Board, the group of student officers that run ASLO.
Since joining the ASL program at WKU, Noah’s parents said they have noticed a major change in his personality.
“In my opinion, he didn’t come out of his shell until he came to WKU and joined ASLO,” Tammy said. “It started at Gallaudet, and then continued here.”
Multicolored neon lights flash and retro music plays at the Skatebox, a local roller skating rink. Western Kentucky University ASL students are here for a Deaf Culture Event, which is a voice-off, ASL-only event set up to immerse students in sign language and Deaf culture.
Most of the students are skating, while seven or eight other students huddle around Noah at a booth. They watch with wide eyes as Noah teaches them the sign for “roller skates.” His index and middle fingers curl in a claw-like shape, and his hands alternate moving back and forth in front of his chest, representing the movement of roller skates.
His face brightens as the students mimic his hand movements and learn the sign. For many of these students, it is their first time interacting with a Deaf person.
Ashley Chance Fox, the coordinator of WKU’s ASL program, has seen firsthand how Noah’s interaction with other ASL students has transformed him into a leader.
“He’s made a home here in the ASL program,” Fox said. “He works really hard when he goes to events and always asks if there’s any way he can help.”
He is also now deeply involved with the Deaf community in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and he goes to services with the Deaf ministry at First Baptist Church every week. He has expressed regrets about leaving the rich Deaf community at Gallaudet, and considered going back.
“I have time and again wondered why I left Gallaudet,” he said. “It was a rather difficult time for me personally, but now I have some regrets about that.”
While Noah has experienced a newfound sense of leadership in the ASL program and the Deaf community, he said his involvement has had an even deeper effect on his life and identity as a Deaf individual.
“In the past I felt like I belonged more in the hearing world,” Noah said. “But now I’m here at WKU and involved in the ASL program. When I saw all of these hearing people learning ASL, I re-examined my identity as a Deaf person. It was like I was having an identity crisis. But really, I am Deaf.”