Impacting Mainstream Education for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students

Gina Oliva understands what it feels like to be surrounded by chattering classmates whose words she often missed because of her deafness. Her progressive loss, diagnosed in kindergarten, set her apart from her hearing peers, making communication difficult, particularly as she advanced through the grades in her mainstream education. She inherited her hearing loss from her father, but she did not follow in her father’s footsteps when it came to connecting with the Deaf Community.

Oliva witnessed the struggles her father endured as he chose to remain detached from the Deaf Community. Later in life she learned that he had had the opportunity to interact with others with hearing loss at his place of employment – The New York Daily News – but he chose not to. Like many others with hearing loss, he chose to “pass and pretend that he was satisfied with the level of social involvement available to him while fully in the ‘hearing world’.”

During her K – 12 years, Oliva struggled because of being the only deaf person in her circle of hearing friends and classmates. It wasn’t until college that she discovered that there were others like her, other people with hearing loss (other than her father). For her senior year, she attended Gallaudet University as a visiting student. There, she learned American Sign Language and immersed herself in the Deaf Community. As this new world opened up to her she realized that “During my K-12 years, everyone thought I was very shy. I learned later that I wasn’t shy at all—just deaf! I could be a committee chairperson, a teacher, or a group exercise instructor. Within the Deaf world, my life became full, vibrant, satisfying; I could function at my full potential.” Oliva would spend 37 years at Gallaudet in various capacities, eventually becoming a Professor in the Physical Education and Recreation Department.

Her early experience as a “solitaire,” a term she uses to describe the isolation deaf students in mainstream education feel, coupled with memories of her father’s “limited life” that stemmed from his deafness and his choice to remain separate from the Deaf Community shaped Oliva thoroughly. She developed a “burning desire for ‘hearing people’ to understand, accept and most importantly value Deaf people (their lives, their history, all they accomplished for themselves and their children over the centuries).” This desire led to her first book, Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School, published in 2004.

Her first book, also the first in the “Deaf Lives” series by the Gallaudet University Press, discusses the problems of inclusion for deaf students within mainstream education. One issue Oliva exposes is that, regardless of attempts to include deaf and hard of hearing children, “the school noises that bombard them frequently and often relentlessly drown out conversations and create a sense of isolation.”

While Oliva explains that Alone in the Mainstream was aimed at family members of deaf and hard of hearing children and adults, it would benefit “anyone with a deaf child or adult in their lives.” Ultimately, the goal of the book is for “hearing family members who have little contact with the ‘world of deafness’ … to understand ‘us.’” To demonstrate that she was not alone in her “solitaire” experience, Oliva conducted email interviews with over 100 deaf and hard of hearing adults who also endured a mainstream education as the only deaf or hard of hearing child in their school. Encouraged by her editor, Oliva wove her own experience with those of her email respondents creating a book that is “part research report, part memoir.”

After publishing Alone in the Mainstream, Oliva continued advocating for mainstreamed deaf and hard of hearing children first with numerous speaking engagements and then by investigating the “phenomenon of ‘Deaf Camps’.” Much to Oliva’s delight, a recent ASL version of the song Happy, created at a “Deaf Film Camp” hosted by Camp Mark Seven, a long-standing Deaf camp, has gone viral.

Oliva states, “This film shows so much of why I feel that all deaf and hard of hearing children today, even those with cochlear implants (or especially those), need a place to come together in summer and weekend programs to meet other children and youth who share this commonality. It helps them with that all important task of forging an identity! They need to know they are not the ‘only one’ and that their deafness actually gives them an ‘edge’ on some things.”

10 years after the publication of Alone in the Mainstream, Oliva and Linda Risser Lytle, another “solitaire,” joined forces to co-author Turning the Tide: Making Life Better for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Schoolchildren. Lytle, a private practice psychologist and a professor in the Department of Counseling at Gallaudet, added her expertise particularly in the areas of identity development and other issues of adolescence to Turning the Tide, published in February 2014.

Like, Alone in the Mainstream, Turning the Tide was written for anyone and everyone who has a deaf, hard of hearing, or cochlear implanted child in their lives. More scholarly than the previous book, it seeks to reveal the “common issues faced by these children (especially lack of access to ‘incidental learning’ and their need for a community of ‘other kids like me’).” This book “presents a qualitative study of deaf and hard of hearing students who attended mainstream schools,” as well as the results of another survey project, whose subjects range between the ages of 18 and 34, a generation younger than the interviewees of Alone in the Mainstream. Topics covered in the book include the respondents’ stories, the phenomenon of Deaf Camps, classroom interpreters, and “ongoing issues that have been addressed by advocates of deaf and hard of hearing children since the passage of IDEA (PL 94 – 142) in the mid-1970s.”

Turning the Tide refutes the idea that things have changed drastically since Oliva’s mainstream years. Deaf and hard of hearing children still feel alone in mainstream education and it is the desire of Oliva and Lytle to educate those who have the opportunity to positively impact current deaf and hard of hearing students.

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