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date: 21 February 2020

Epilogue: What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and What We Should Know

Abstract and Keywords

Significant new findings about social, psychological, linguistic, and pragmatic aspects of deafness have in some cases confirmed long-held assumptions and beliefs about deaf and hard-of-hearing persons—their communities, languages, patterns of learning, and achievements. In other cases, research has failed to support preexisting beliefs, and many issues remain insufficiently investigated. Research is especially needed about the continued development of deaf children, adults, and their communities in the context of technological advances, increased appreciation for alternative approaches to communication and language development, and recognition of the impact of cognitive as well as social abilities on development of literacy and academic skills.

Keywords:  deaf, hard-of-hearing, academic achievement, communication methods, deaf culture/community, literacy/learning, research needs, technology

Upon completing an article, chapter, or book, authors and editors are sometimes left with bits and pieces that did not quite fit, scraps of text looking for a good home, or whole topics that had to be omitted for one reason or another. More often than not, there is the feeling that there was more to say, more that could have been said, if only time, space, and publishers permitted. This is certainly one of those situations. Over the course of preparing both editions of this volume, we have learned much but also gained a better appreciation of just how much more there is to know.

Normally, authors have a fairly good idea of what they know and what they do not know in their own field or subfield of interest. In assembling a collection as diverse as this one, however, we have discovered new studies, new ideas, and new questions of research interest that one or the other of us never knew existed (and, in some cases, perhaps did not exist before this massive collaboration). Thus, as much as the preceding chapters have provided a wealth of information about social, psychological, linguistic, and pragmatic aspects of deafness, we finish this project feeling that there are still many questions in need of answers and findings in need of good (or at least better) explanations. Indeed, the integration of previously independent lines of research here has provided several new lines to follow, as contributors have all indicated the “hot” issues still unresolved in their areas and pointed the way to research and application that lie ahead. In only the few years between the first and second editions of this book, several of these new research domains have been tapped and are reported in the preceding contributions.

(p. 514) Looking across the chapters of this book, one question that arises is what the future of communities of Deaf people will be, and how their culture, defined for several centuries by shared language and identity, might evolve in the face of technological and social change. As Woll and Ladd (chapter 11) and Lang (chapter 1) emphasized, the story line has shifted from one of a population seen as being in need of care by well-meaning but often oppressive hearing powers to that of an empowered community that offers its own mechanisms for change. Despite the diversity in communication preferences and group identities within the population of people who are deaf or hard of hearing, there has been a thriving and creative Deaf community for hundreds of years. Now, as perhaps always, that community faces perceived threats both from within and without. Though the story is yet to be written, there is concern in some quarters of the Deaf community about the changes to be wrought by cochlear implants, gene therapy, and other medical advances that promise to reduce the incidence of deafness and simultaneously threaten a social structure. Arnos and Pandya (chapter 28), Bernstein and Auer (chapter 27), Blamey and Sarant (chapter 17), Cone (chapter 30), Harkins and Bakke (chapter 29), and Spencer, Marschark, and Spencer (chapter 31) indicated that even while accepting sign language and deaf individuals for what and who they are, society at large continues efforts to “habilitate” (in the case of prelingually deaf children) or “rehabilitate” deaf persons by developing new means of augmenting hearing and enhancing the acquisition of spoken language skills. Although these initiatives are seen as positive by some individuals who are deaf, they are perceived as negative by others, and as a direct threat to the existence of Deaf communities and Deaf culture by others.

Many other ongoing issues relate to communication, both with regard to mass media and in educational settings. Monikowski and Winston (chapter 25) described progress in the provision and understanding of sign language interpreting (both from sign language into spoken language and vice versa), a part of the field that is still in its infancy. While we know that there are not enough qualified interpreters to meet the demand, we have little empirical evidence concerning how much information is successfully communicated in three- (or more) party communication situations (i.e., including the interpreter) or the effectiveness of interpreting in different educational contexts for students with varying sign language and spoken language skills. Similarly, Harkins and Bakke (chapter 29) described technological advances that appear to promise greater communication access by deaf people and enhanced opportunities for interactions with hearing friends, family, and services; but the speed and consequences of adopting of technology are erratic and often mystify prognosticators and become clear only in hindsight.

Blamey and Sarant (chapter 17); Jamieson and Simmons (chapter 20); Lederberg and Beal-Alvarez (chapter 18); Leybaert, Aparicio, and Alegria (chapter 19); Mayer and Akamatsu (chapter 10); Singleton and Supalla (chapter 21); and Schick (chapter 16) described communication alternatives for deaf individuals and the courses and implications of their acquisition. Bernstein and Auer (chapter 27); Fischer and van der Hulst (chapter 23); and Wilbur (chapter 24) provided additional insights into the nature of signed and spoken languages. Stinson and Kluwin (chapter 4) and Mitchell and Karchmer (chapter 2) offered some indication of how alternative communication methods influence educational placement and success for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, while Emmorey (chapter 26), Marschark and Wauters (chapter 33), and Rönnberg (chapter 34) each suggested ways in which different modes of communication may be relevant to brain and cognitive processes. Yet the ways in which language, learning, and social functioning interact in deaf individuals remain largely unknown, or at least are still at a point where the application of available research on the topic remain theoretical, with only a few tentative forays into the classroom and the board room.

One thing we do know is that no single method of communication is going to be appropriate for all deaf children. The goal, therefore, must be to identify hearing losses as early as possible and begin interventions that match the strengths and needs of each child and the child’s family. However, we still are unable to predict which children will be able to acquire spoken language competence, with or without the assistance of speechreading and the use of technology. To date, there appears to be little emphasis on development of specialized teaching or habilitation strategies to build on the potential provided by cochlear implants and other advances in hearing amplification. Moreover, there is a glaring lack of objective information about ways in which sign systems might or might not be helpful in supporting development of spoken language in the context of new technologies.

(p. 515) A complete picture of the full benefits of acquisition of a natural sign language (e.g., American Sign Language, British Sign Language, Auslan), the process of truly bilingual development in sign and spoken language, and the generality of literacy findings obtained with French cued speech also remain to be provided by future research and practice. In the same vein, factors that allow hearing parents of deaf children—usually unfamiliar with deafness and sign language—to learn sign language remain unclear (see Schick; Singleton & Supalla; i.e., chapters 16 and 21, this volume). Antia, Kreimeyer, Metz, and Spolsky (chapter 12); Marschark and Wauters (chapter 33); Mayer and Akamatsu (chapter 10); Power and Leigh (chapter 3); and Stinson and Kluwin (chapter 4) thus all suggest the need for taking a long, hard look at some of the assumptions that guide the field and the need to ensure that various practices have their foundations in fact rather than wishful thinking.

For centuries, deaf people who use spoken communication and those who use sign communication have coexisted, but the relationship has rarely been a comfortable one. In a world where the oppressed often become oppressors themselves, deaf individuals are often willing to admit that the tension between “oral” and “signing” deaf people is both painful and detrimental. Unfortunately, perhaps, while they are willing to discuss it in private, there appears to be little research being done on the relations within the diverse Deaf community (but see Woll & Ladd, chapter 11 in this volume, with regard to minority issues in general). How similar is the spoken language versus sign language divide to the class distinction seen among other minority communities? How is the issue seen by individuals of different generations and social standing?

When we sought a chapter for this volume on “oral deaf communities,” we came up empty. “Oral deaf people don’t want to be seen as a community,” we were told, “they are trying to be part of the hearing world.” So, while there are a number of biographical and autobiographical stories available about deaf individuals’ struggles between the two worlds, we know little for certain about the social dynamics involved beyond research involving infants and children through school age, described here by Antia, Kreimeyer, Metz, and Spolsky (chapter 12); Calderon and Greenberg (chapter 13); and Traci and Koester (chapter 14). We do have considerable research on the interactions of deaf and hearing children, but there is little information available on the interactions of deaf children who use spoken language with those who use sign language. If we knew more about this and about interactions involving hard-of-hearing children, perhaps we would be in a better position to know how cochlear implants might change the Deaf community and whether they will, as some fear, end it completely.

No place is the influence of cochlear implants— and the lack of information about their long-term consequences—more obvious than in the schools, both public schools and traditional schools for the deaf. Historical and contemporary issues in educating deaf children, as reported by Antia, Kreimeyer, Metz, and Spolsky (chapter 12); Lang (chapter 1); Power and Leigh (chapter 3); Sass-Lehrer (chapter 5); and Stinson and Kluwin (chapter 4), well describe the overt and covert challenges facing parents, teachers, and students in optimizing educational opportunities for deaf children and preparing them for adulthood and the world of work. At this point, there is little information available on how implants (or other technologies, for that matter; see Harkins & Bakke, chapter 29 in this volume) affect long-term social and academic functioning of deaf students. Will they help to lower some social and pragmatic barriers, or will they merely create yet another audiological class of people?

One oft-cited hope for cochlear implants is that they will facilitate the development of literacy as well as other academic skills. Results of research in this area, as reported by Spencer, Marschark, and Spencer (chapter 31), are just emerging. Leybaert, Aparicio, and Alegria (chapter 19) report some work indicating improvements in literacy attainment by children who are immersed in cued speech, but there is no doubt that literacy remains one of the biggest challenges for young deaf children, and one that will influence their entire educational histories and opportunities after the school years. Albertini and Schley (chapter 9); Mayer and Akamatsu (chapter 10); Trezek, Wang, and Paul (chapter 7); and Schirmer and Williams (chapter 8) take on various aspects of the literacy issue directly. Descriptions of the challenges in reading and writing for deaf individuals are accompanied by assessments of alternative methods for teaching literacy and supporting the literacy-related efforts of deaf learners of all ages.

But new solutions to such challenges seem to come along every few years, and even their cumulative effects thus far appear small. Many educational systems have been built on the quest for literacy in (p. 516) deaf children, and movements championing various forms of manually coded English, particular educational placements, and specific teaching-learning methods (Albertini & Schley; Leybaert, Aparicio, & Alegria; Mayer & Akamatsu; Trezek, Wang, & Paul; Schick; Schirmer & Williams; i.e., chapters 710, 16, and 19, this volume) have lost much of their glamor, if not their adherents (see Spencer & Marschark, 2010, for reviews). Despite decades of creative efforts, however, deaf children today are still progressing at only a fraction of the rate of hearing peers in learning to read. Approximately half of all 18-year-old deaf students leaving high school in the United States have reached only a fourth- to sixth-grade level in reading skills, only about 3% of those 18-year-olds read at a level comparable to 18-year-old hearing readers, and more than 30% of deaf students leave school functionally illiterate (Mitchell & Karchmer; Stinson & Kluwin; i.e., chapters 2 and 4, this volume). We know that some deaf adults and children are excellent readers and writers, but we do not know how many there are or how they achieved this level of literacy. Simply put, we have been unable to match the correct teaching methods with students’ strengths and weaknesses to raise the literacy bar. How can we account for those young deaf children who take to reading so readily? How much of it is their home environments, early intervention programming, or just natural talent? How can we identify them early enough to really make a difference?

Beyond literacy, there are other academic domains that remain challenging for both deaf students and their teachers, although with the possible exception of mathematics, none of them seem to present content-specific problems. Even in mathematics, recent research suggests that it is not dealing with numbers that is problematic but that there are some more basic cognitive issues to be dealt with. That is, it may be that the nature of early language and early educational experiences, as well as the lack of hearing and related perceptual-cognitive-neurological development, lead to some subtle (or not so subtle) differences in cognition and learning among deaf children (Emmorey; Maller & Braden; Marschark & Wauters; Rönnberg, i.e., chapters 26, 3234, this volume). Only by understanding those differences can we hope to tailor experiential and educational settings to optimize learning. Such differences also may influence social-emotional development, from birth onward, suggesting the need to better understand the complex interactions among factors if the educational and social progress of deaf individuals is to move forward (Antia, Kreimeyer, Metz, & Spolsky; Calderon & Greenberg; Traci & Koester; i.e., chapters 1214, this volume).

At this juncture, the publication of the second edition of the Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education seems both a trivial accomplishment and a dramatic step forward. The feeling of triviality lies in realizing the extent to which these chapters have shown us not how much we know (though they certainly have done that!), but shown us how much we do not know and, occasionally, how much we thought we knew but really do not. In a real sense, these pages indicate not just how far we have come, but how much further we have to go. At the same time, all of us involved in this project have recognized that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In providing an objective and comprehensive analysis of the current state of this interdisciplinary field, the contributors have offered a detailed map for that journey, clearly marking promising routes, danger zones, and scenic overlooks. With this map in hand, the journey becomes better defined and less daunting, exciting for all its formidable complexities. But, then, after all, isn’t that what handbooks (and journeys) are all about?


Spencer, P. E., & Marschark, M. (2010). Evidence-based practice in educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource: