Is parenting any different when the child has a difficulty like hearing impairment? Drawing upon years of work in this field, Sreela Bose shares insights into her nuanced understanding of the relationship that parents and their deaf children can develop.
A little eight-year-old girl tells her mother, “Mamma, do you know that God made mothers because He can’t be everywhere?” This remark reflects her confidence in her mother, and her dependence on her. A father’s role is no less important. He has very important messages for his little one. Messages of love, security, a sense of belonging, and fun—messages that help his child to grow into a self-reliant, confident adult.
Together, parents – mother and father – make up the team that is responsible for giving their little hearing-impaired infant the very first gift—that of life. With it comes the adventure of equipping the child with the necessary skills and abilities to live and enjoy life. An adventure filled with challenges, successes, trials, happiness, pain…and the hope of fulfillment. An adventure that all parents go through, because that is what parenting is about. We are reminded of the famous Chinese saying, “When we give life, we become responsible for that life for the rest of our lives.”
Is parenting any different when the child has a difficulty like hearing impairment? It is difficult to find a satisfactory answer to this question.
According to a report on a Needs Assessment Study undertaken by the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) in the UK, “parents of deaf children strive for their children to be as fulfilled as hearing children.”
For some this will mean treating their children the same; for others, it will mean treating their child in a different way. However, it is in the actual working out of how it should be the same and how it needs to be different that parents need to make the “difficult day-to-day decisions.” These decisions are an outcome of their own parenting experiences with their child, and need not be the same as anyone else’s. The NDCS study further indicates that “there is an authority with which parents can speak about their child which nobody else can, and this is a source of inspiration and hope” and of strength.
Each child is has individual strengths and needs, and individual coping and adjustment skills. It is hardly likely that every child will respond to the same intervention strategies. This is seen often as a “failure” in the child. It also adds to the parents’ “pre-existing sense of inadequacy”, especially the mother, who is the person who spends the most time with the child. She feels she is not doing what is expected of her as a mother.
Fortunately, a section of parents in India have begun to realise this, and are now making discernible efforts to identify their child’s needs and the best ways of meeting those needs.
Accepting uncertainty and the disappointment of unrealised potential in the child is about parenting a hearing-impaired child in a system that is not always responsive to his/her needs and abilities.
It is important for parents to have access to good, comprehensive information to enable them to make decisions which parents of hearing children are unlikely to have to do. For example, they need information about the choice of communication method, the management of hearing aids, and understanding and familiarising themselves with another culture—the deaf culture.
The flip side is that sometimes professionals, in their enthusiasm, stress so heavily on parents becoming different kinds of teachers and therapists that the additional skills and knowledge required to respond to the child’s special needs could become in themselves the essence of parenting. The other equally valuable aspects of being Ma and Papa – like the joy that a parent can get just by being with a child – lose their significance.
Apart from seeking professional support, parents have been known to form their own “help” groups where they find strength and emotional support, because a parent can speak to another parent in a way that nobody else can.
Three important need areas that such help groups could address are:
- Younger parents can meet parents of older children to learn about what they might encounter next, and relieve their anxieties about the future.
- Parents of older children could pass on strategies, philosophies, and approaches to new parents i.e. the development of ‘lay’ knowledge which only parents, through their experiences, can possess.
- Parents, when they meet other parents, provide a way of mentoring and support for each other over time. The recognition of parents as a resource for each other is not something that diminishes with the age of the child.
Parents may perhaps need to feel reassured that being the parents of a hearing-impaired child involves the same skills as those required when parenting hearing children. It is possible for them to acquire the additional new skills within this parenting role.
Parents who have been already been through similar experiences can best provide this reassurance.
Finally, I’d like to relay a message from a parent. A famous otolgist once told Mrs. Spencer Tracy that her son, John, had a profound sensorineural loss that he could do nothing about. “But,” he continued in the same breath, “John can learn to do almost anything that a hearing person can do. But you have a JOB!” Two years later, a well-known neurologist confirmed the diagnosis and commented, “Mrs. Tracy, you are blessed among women. Yours can be a very interesting life.”
“These are moments I shall never forget,” is Mrs. Tracy’s message to us. “It [having a child with a hearing impairment] is not a blessing one would pray for, but certainly, mine has been an interesting life.” Mrs. Spencer Tracy overcame her own tragedy and went on to found the prestigious John Tracy Clinic in the USA.
Centres of excellence have also been set up by several Indian parents. They have transcended their own pain and brought hope and opportunity to hearing impaired children other than their own.
These centres have been a tower of courage, comfort, and encouragement for other parents as well.
We cannot ignore, or underestimate, the strength of parents. For it is on this strength that their children build their lives.
(The author has over 45 years of experience as a trainer of the Teachers of the Deaf. She has also worked with the Uganda National Association of the Deaf.)
Vaani is running an awareness campaign on childhood deafness, demanding mandatory early identification and intervention. For more information, please visit the #SilentPact website.