This Friday November 30th, Liesbeth Matthijs publicly defends her PhD at the VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences), titled “What about sign language? A longitudinal study of the early interaction between hearing mothers and deaf infants with a cochlear implant”. The study is situated in Flanders, Belgium, a world pioneer in implementing universal neonatal hearing screening. It started as an investigation of intersubjective development between hearing mothers and deaf children in an era where early cochlear implantation is almost standardized. But Liesbeth quickly noticed irregularities surrounding the advice and guidance parents received from early intervention services, and decided to extrapolate the notion of intersubjectivity to include these interactions, embedded in social contexts. For this, she interviewed hearing mothers of deaf children about how they received advice and guidance from early intervention services.
The study deserves attention because it brings a wider and more nunanced context for understanding the issue of ‘parental choice’ in the context of (hearing) parents of deaf children. The study effectively dispels the notion that hearing parents of deaf children can and do ‘choose’ or have a ‘choice’. It demonstrates that hearing parents are being positioned a priori by service providers as “just parents”, “not-knowers”, “not being able to become a fluent signer”, preferring normalization, etc., and are consequently being treated as such, offering parents intervention that suits with these positionings. It even goes so far that the positioning of contemporary hearing parents in Western countries, as a group, as opting less and less for sign inclusive approaches, could be called an “explicit malignant positioning” through inaccurate generalizations, and that it would be unethical to conclude a decreasing trend in parental choice for sign bilingual education and upbringing. Examples of this malignant positioning are the wide spread practice of speaking in terms of a need for sign language and the common taken for granted philosophy that sign language would never be a deliberate choice if a CI was an option. Interestingly, Liesbeth states that sometimes deaf people are involved in this malignant positioning too, for examply by being openly amazed that a hearing parent keeps on signing to their child even after it has a CI.
Often, the choices and preferences of hearing parents are presented as deliberate, for example Knoors and Marschark (2012, 9) stating that hearing parents of deaf children with early CIs are “not likely to choose a bilingual upbringing and education” and are not seeking for their children to learn sign language anymore. This thesis shows these choices are not deliberate, but that parents’ choices and preferences are effectively constructed. It also shows that hearing parents are patronized with regard to learning sign language and critcizes the “wait-and-see policy” when it comes to learning sign language. This policy is implemented for example by telling parents to “take things slowly”, wait for the next course as it would be difficult to step in mid-term, be realistic about the goals that can be achieved, not think that learning sign language is something that can be easily managed etc.
In the end, parents might not become “fluent signers” (whatever that is), and it is often easier for them to opt for spoken communication because this is widely accepted, stimulated and guided. But the thesis states it can be discussed whether this result should be perceived as a trend in parents’ choices and preferences. By investigating the ideologies supporting intervention services and demonstrating that service providers mainly think and speak in terms of normalization but also listen from within these terms, Liesbeth demonstrates how the system does not accomodate parental positions that are resistant to normalization. In other words: parents who comply with the normalization discourse do not (or to a much lesser extent) have troubling experiences with intervention services after their deaf child is born, while parents who are resistant to this normalization discourse do not get the help they ask for.
Liesbeth states that “it would by no means be ethical to conclude a decreasing trend in parental choice for bilingual-bicultural education” and that “equally unethical would it be to conclude failure of bilingual-bicultural programs in bearing the theoretically expected results, as the broader context made any attempt to implement a genuine, theory-based bilingual-bicultural education, prone to fail”. This research thus also offers a much-needed alternative explanation for the frequent lack of success experienced by parents in the learning of sign language.
As such, the study refines the notion of ‘parental choice’ and how trends and evaluations ascribed to parents are used to influence policy-making.
The doctoral thesis consists of three empirical studies (published as separate articles) and a summary connecting the dots, discussing the studies and outcomes and also methodology etc. which is really worth reading. The study is not online yet (I believe it will come online soon) but two of the three articles have been published already (Open Access).
Matthijs et al. (2012). First Information Parents Receive After UNHS Detection of Their Baby’s Hearing Loss. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 17(4), 387-401. (Open Access)
Matthijs et al. (2017). Mothers of Deaf Children in the 21st Century. Dynamic Positioning Between the Medical and Cultural-Linguistic Discourses. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 22(4), 365-377. (Open Access)
Matthijs et al. (submitted) The Development of Intersubjectivity between Hearing Mothers and Deaf Implanted Children from 6 to 24 months: Exploring the Role of Visual Communication Strategies, Context and Discourses.
Here is Liesbeth talking about her PhD and the defence, in Flemish Sign Language: