Deafness and Identity

By Suzie Edmondson

When I started training as an educational psychologist in 2014 I was already interested in deaf education. I had begun to learn sign language and for my thesis I chose to focus on the experiences of deaf secondary school children in mainstream schools. Educational psychologists are often asked to work with deaf young people when their learning has become a concern. My research suggested that there are other areas such as identity that we should also be considering. 

The issue of identity for deaf children young people includes the complex idea of whether a child with hearing loss considers themselves deaf or Deaf. Here ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘D’ refers to someone who identifies with and is a part of the Deaf community and embraces Deaf culture and its language. While the lower case ‘deaf’ referring to someone who has a hearing loss but does not consider themselves to be a member of the signing community. 

In my experience working with these young people it seems that being part of the Deaf community is a unique and special thing, potentially only truly understood by those within it. It is a combination of a social, cultural and linguistic identity developed through access to Deaf clubs, Deaf role models and signed storytelling passed down through the years. The majority of deaf children will not be a part of this world. As the number of specialist schools for children who are deaf have reduced over the years and more children are taught in mainstream schools, there is a reduction in their access to environments and activities rich in signing, where Deaf culture is shared and learned.

Research suggests that deaf children may have to deal with the concept of identity sooner and to a greater extent than their hearing peers, particularly when they reach secondary school. They have to make choices regarding their involvement in the Deaf, hearing, or both communities. Social relationships with hearing and deaf classmates and the language used to communicate with peers has been found to be one of the most influential educational experiences affecting identity. Therefore, the school that the child goes to and the demographics of its population is likely to play a role in their identity formation. 

However, for those deaf children who attend mainstream schools and see themselves as different but do not identify as Deaf, there can be a sense of feeling trapped between two worlds. They can also feel isolated within a third unspecified group. During my research and through casework, I have found that this seems to be the group struggling most with their identity as “deaf” and where intervention can be beneficial.

Recently I worked with an 8 year old boy who was struggling with the visibility of his hearing aids and associated deafness. His experiences echoed some of the comments made by the older pupils whom I had interviewed during my thesis. Over 6 weeks we worked together to explore his identity and his deafness as a part of this. By the end of the weekly sessions his acceptance of his deafness seemed to have changed and he wanted to share his knowledge with his peers. He created a poster to educate them on his hearing loss and what they could do to help him. This promoted his inclusion in the class, increased his classmates’ deaf awareness and gave him the empowering experience of advocating for himself. 

This case and my research suggest that there is a wider role that educational psychologists can play in supporting young people who are deaf within mainstream schools, beyond the issue of their academic progress. My recent paper explored some of these ideas by talking to deaf young people about their lived experiences in school. When educational psychologists are asked to work with deaf young people it is helpful to consider their identity and how far they are socially included in their school.

Dr Suzanne Edmondson graduated from the initial training course in educational psychology at the University of Birmingham in 2017 and now works for Derbyshire Educational Psychology Service.


1 thought on “Deafness and Identity

  1. I did my research on using Circle of Friends for children with a hearing impairment in mainstream primary schools – definitely an area that needs supporting!


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