“Deaf children need more support”
The incidence of hearing disabilities among newborns is 2-3 per 1000. In this interview Professor Annette Leonhardt from LMU’s Institute for the Education of the Deaf and the Hearing Impaired discusses the challenges these children face.
The theme of this year’s International Day of the Deaf on 29. September is “Equality for Deaf People”. How would you characterize the current educational opportunities for the deaf and the hard of hearing in Germany?
Annette Leonhardt: With regard to the particular needs of children who are profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing, a great deal has changed for the better in Germany over the past 20 years. In principle, all levels of qualification are now open, and attainable, to them. Almost all children who have received a cochlear implant – a prosthetic device that enables them to perceive sound and understand speech – at an early age attend kindergarten and go to an ordinary school. But they need much more support. The levels of assistance they now obtain are nowhere near adequate. Many of them receive only four visits a year, at most, from members of the Mobile Remedial Service.
How does this relative lack of support affect the development of these children?
In the course of our studies on the integration and inclusion of the hearing impaired we have looked at this question from several different perspectives. We have interviewed the children themselves, and spoken to their parents, teachers and classmates. Our findings show that, in the majority of cases, integration is successfully achieved – but it is not easy. These children have to devote more time to the preparation and revision of classwork, and to homework, than hearing pupils need. This also places greater demands on their parents, who have to give them more help, and have to intervene more often with the schools and their teaching personnel to ensure that the special needs of their children are adequately met.
Why is attendance at a normal school so demanding for them?
Learning at an ordinary school poses a huge challenge for children whose hearing is impaired. The acoustic conditions in most classrooms are very poor and, with 25 pupils or more, classes are very large. Teachers may not always look them in the face when they address the hard of hearing. One must remember that children who are dependent on a CI or a conventional hearing aid do not have normal hearing. They cannot, for instance, automatically differentiate between purposeful utterance and background noise. In order to filter out the signal from the noise, they have to concentrate much more than their hearing peers. In other words, for them, a normal day at a normal school means unceasing effort and constant attentiveness.
When they are in first or second grade, most of them master that challenge quite well. But in third grade the curriculum becomes much more exacting and, at this stage, the risk of losing ground or even being left behind increases. At that point it may be a good idea for them to switch to a special school for the deaf, and then return to an ordinary school later on. The teaching profession should get used to the idea that it is not imperative that a child should spend his school career from first to last in the same school. What is important is that each should attend the kind of school that is best for his or her situation at each stage of development. Indeed, ordinary schools and the remedial schools for the deaf should cooperate much more closely with each other than they do now.
Is it not very stressful for the children if they have to switch schools often?
It can also be liberating. We have talked to children who had switched to a school for the deaf, and many of them said things like: “At last I am being taken seriously,” or “I’m not on my own at recess anymore, I have friends now.” Our studies show that children with hearing impairments who attend ordinary schools are often sidelined or excluded, and may even be subjected to mobbing. They often have to ask for things to be repeated or they may take longer to react to remarks or questions put to them. That can be enough to have them branded as outsiders. In this regard, there is still much to be done.
Since Germany signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Disabled, those who are deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to be educated together with their non-handicapped peers. Being ostracized at normal schools is not what inclusion is supposed to mean.
The Convention declares that ordinary schools should be open to all. It does not mandate the closure of remedial schools, as is often erroneously asserted. It simply means that parents have the right to choose the sort of school they want their child to attend. Moreover, the concept of inclusion cannot be restricted to the time one spends in school. On the contrary, it applies to all stages and situations in life. The goal must be to ensure that everybody has a fair chance to participate fully in social life.
Kids whose hearing is impaired are often treated as outsiders at ordinary schools; they are at a disadvantage and are perceived as lacking something. In addition, teachers at normal day-schools are simply not equipped to deal with the particular needs of a pupil who is hard of hearing. What we need is for teachers who are trained for, and have experience in, special schools for the deaf to go into the ordinary schools regularly to keep an eye on the progress of the deaf pupils, and advise teachers and parents on how best to promote it. In the present state of things, it would be folly to abolish special schools for the deaf.
Germany introduced nationwide screening of newborns for hearing disabilities in 2009. What effect has this had?
The effects have been prodigious. Children with congenital hearing impairments can now be properly diagnosed within the first three or four months of life. They can then be fitted with hearing aids so as to provide auditory stimulation as early as possible. Many children who are profoundly deaf then receive a cochlear implant at the age of 8 to 12 months. Prior to 2009, these conditions were discovered only in the second or third year of life, when the impact on the child’s development became manifest. Now these children have a far greater chance of developing at a normal pace.
Are all parents willing to give their consent to the early emplacement of a cochlear implant, which, of course, requires an operation?
Approximately 90% of these children are born to hearing parents, most of whom are ready to allow the implantation to be done at an early stage. These parents see the CI as the child’s route into the world they know. After all, virtually none of them have any knowledge of sign language. In cases where both parents are deaf the situation is entirely different. They are able to communicate with their child from the very beginning by means of sign language, which is familiar to them. In granting permission for the operation, they are effectively consigning their child to a world that is unknown to them.
Yet they do decide to take this step?
When the cochlear implant first became available in the 1980s, the initial reaction of the deaf community in general was negative. There were simply no precedents that would allow one to assess the wider effects of the intervention. Furthermore, a reassessment of the value of sign language, for which deaf people had long fought, was already underway in many countries at that time. Our studies have shown, however, that this skepticism is gradually disappearing. Most deaf parents who agree to have their child fitted with the CI subsequently have no regrets. Beforehand, many of them fear that everyday life in the family will suffer, but they soon see that this does not happen. They continue to communicate with their child in sign language, so that children who have received the implant at an early age become competent in both spoken and sign language. Of course, these families require the help of hearing individuals. In order to learn spoken language, the child needs mentors who can hear.
What does normal speech sound like when heard via a cochlear implant?
Deaf children have no way of describing it because they can only perceive speech in this way, so they have nothing to compare it with. People who have gone deaf in later life and have had a CI fitted report that it sounds very artificial at first, like computer speech, or like the voice of Mickey Mouse in the movies. After a while though – the length of which varies from individual to individual – this artificial quality wears off. Obviously the brain adapts to the unfamiliar “accents” with time.
Professor Annette Leonhardt holds the Chair of Education for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired at LMU Munich. Her research interests center on the acquisition of language, the impact of the cochlear implant on the everyday life of deaf children (particularly those whose parents are themselves deaf), and the obstacles to full social integration of the deaf and the hard of hearing.
The cochlear implant (CI)
The cochlear implant (CI) is a prosthetic device that enables people who suffer from sensorineural hearing defects to perceive sounds. The CI is made up of an external unit consisting of a receiver, processor and transmitter, and an internal receiver-stimulator which is implanted subcutaneously in the skull behind the ear. The external transmitter conveys the processed acoustic signals, via the internal receiver, to electrodes implanted in the cochlea in the inner ear, which stimulate the fibers of the auditory nerve.
The Sixth International Symposium on Remedial and Special Education takes place at LMU Munich on 3.-6. October 2013.