Updated: Dec 30, 2020
In the United States, we are proud to be a multicultural society. Many people descend from immigrants or are immigrants themselves, and many immigrant families use multiple spoken languages in their homes. Most of us have friends who can speak languages other than English such as Spanish, Chinese, or Hebrew in order to communicate with their parents or grandparents who may not have the fluency in English. In some cases, the immigrants’ children and grandchildren are not familiar with the language of the immigrants and communication is very limited as a result. Our society is quite used to the cultural and linguistic barriers that exist for multicultural families, and resources are available in many of our communities for those families. But what about Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs)?
CODAs are children born to a Deaf parent (or both parents). The vast majority (up to 90 percent) of children born to Deaf parents are hearing. Although hearing, they are members of the Deaf community from birth and their first language is often American Sign Language (ASL). However, their identity as members of the Deaf community may be lost or unrecognized by the rest of society. Too often, this results in challenges for both CODAs and their Deaf parents. Such challenges and experiences are somewhat similar to immigrant families but is often more complex due to the uniqueness of Deaf Culture and sign language.
There is significant research and programs to support hearing parents on how to raise and educate Deaf children, but there seems to be very little research or support for Deaf parents who have hearing children as well as for the hearing children themselves. While CODAs and their Deaf parents usually share a sign language (whether it be formal ASL or other forms of sign language), and a shared cultural experience, CODAs have quite a unique life experience and represent a relatively invisible cultural and linguistic minority of their own.
As a Deaf parent of three beautiful CODAs, I wanted to share some insights to some of the issues I dealt with and some tips that may be helpful for CODA families.
In my role as a parent who happens to be Deaf, I have made many adjustments to make sure my children had a relatively typical childhood. This often includes advocacy on my part to ensure I have access to all programs and services available to them such as education, religion, medical and general community programming. Access for me can include sign language interpreters for school events including school plays, medical appointments or religious education. This is so that I can be an involved parent. However, this can be a battle as there is sometimes an assumption that I do not need access if the provider is addressing the needs of my children.
This misstep can result in the deprivation of the parent’s ability to reinforce or support their children’s needs. It often requires a great amount of energy in addition to general parent responsibilities to be able to access the information or services needed. Although such access to programming and services is generally required by law, it does not always come easily and can be an uphill battle which often creates conflict between the parent and the provider. This may or may not have a chilling effect on the service or even the relationship.
The second most common issue that I experienced as a Deaf parent is the imposition of greater responsibilities on my children due to society’s diminished perspective of me as a Deaf individual. That perspective has often persisted even though I am a civil rights attorney, and is often worse for other Deaf parents.
Professionals, teachers, medical providers and others too frequently ask a CODA to interpret conversations or direct the conversation only to the CODA which dismisses and excludes the Deaf parent. These situations often place the child in an inappropriate position which can create different kinds of trauma for the child including the “parentification” of a child. The CODA child takes on adult roles and there is a power reversal. If left unchecked, this can create unhealthy or unbalanced dynamics in the family and is not in the best interest of the child.
As a Deaf parent, whose speech is not always clearly understood, I make a conscious effort not to lean on my own children to interpret. However, I admit I fail at this from time to time. Sometimes I stand by and watch my children turn into fierce advocates when a situation becomes unjust. Other times, I have had to ask others not to rely on my children. It can be uncomfortable for all involved. In any event, the impact can be felt.
An important first step is the recognition of this bicultural and bilingual community as a legitimate minority and that the needs of this community must be addressed by society as a whole. This includes all professionals working with families. While much more research and study is needed, here are some helpful tips on how we can support CODAs and their families including some from the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education (2000) in this article.
Respect that children who are CODAs are bicultural and bilingual and have separate needs for their Deaf and hearing identities. Educational settings should support and encourage the development of individual personal identities while understanding their needs as a CODA.
Schools and other professional settings must ensure equal access to Deaf parents so they may be involved in their child’s education and meet their needs. This includes access to all school events, meeting with teachers and other professionals such as doctors. The CODA should never be asked by the professionals to interpret a conversation between the professional and the Deaf parent. At the same time, the lack of communication should never be the reason why a Deaf parent is denied access or information about his/her child.
Clarify roles and authority for hearing relatives of CODAs. Sometimes, well-intentioned relatives interject parentally where they aren’t welcome or needed. Such behavior creates conflicts for families with Deaf parents and CODAs. These relatives’ energy can be focused on creating inclusive family environments where all members are included in conversations instead and avoids situations like the dreaded dinner table syndrome.
All hearing children should be able to communicate fluently with their Deaf parents. Support should be provided to families to ensure that full communication is encouraged and expected. This also includes being mindful that the Deaf parent should always be included and ASL should always be used whether they are part of the conversation or not. Failing to do so places the CODA in a conflicted position between the hearing adults who are communicating around their Deaf parents who are excluded.
Inclusivity requires many perspectives and nuances. Multiculturality requires a full range of inclusivity for every member of the family. Usually, the plans to include people who use different languages are one-dimensional and focus on the immediate needs of such persons. There are deeper and more complicated needs that must be respected and recognized such as those of CODAs and their Deaf parents.