This session was recorded on November 30th, 2021. Our goal was 10 minutes. We went a little over 🤷
. The following has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Dr. Leah Geer: Perfect, ok. Hello everyone! Today, we have a special vlogBlog because we have a guest! Please, go ahead and introduce yourself and explain a bit about yourself growing up, etc., whatever you feel like sharing.
Dr. Nate Dutra: Hello! Thank you for inviting me to come. My name is Nate Dutra. Here’s a bit of my background. I taught at the high school level for about eight years, deaf students. My first year teaching was at a residential school for the deaf, (California School for the Deaf) Riverside. I taught English there. Later I changed to teaching in a mainstream program. For seven years, I taught different topics, English, science, history, depending on the students’ needs. After eight years at the high school level, I transitioned to teaching in higher ed, at colleges and universities. Currently, I teach at both Yuba City College and at Sacramento State.
LG: Stingers Up! Right?!
ND: There ya go, right, Stingers Up!
So, I’ve been teaching (at the college level) for about three years at this point. And I’m here and excited to talk about my research! I graduated from the EdD program, what was it, two years ago now? Time’s a bit fuzzy.
LG: Yeah, it’ll be two years ago very soon.
ND: It feels like time travel!
In my EdD, I focused my studies on hearing parents who learned ASL for their deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) child. So, that and I’m excited to talk about that with you!
LG: Awesome. I’m so excited to invite you here. Really, I want to ask you two things: 1. Why did you do the dissertation study you chose? 2. What is the impact of your dissertation research? Why should we care and learn more about this? Why should we take this topic outside the Ivory Tower? Why is it crucial to disseminate your findings? Who cares?
ND: Good questions! First: Why did I go ahead with this study? I was born deaf into a hearing family. My mother is hearing. She didn’t realize I was deaf initially. As time went on, she started to suspect and would do “experiments” like banging pots (to see if I’d turn to that). She realized I was deaf. So, what did she do? You have to understand she grew up in a very rural town and had never met a deaf person before. And of course in the 80’s it’s not like she had the internet. Nevertheless, she cracked a book and started studying and learning to sign. And that really benefited me because I grew up healthy with respect to my socio(emotional) needs, my education. I’ve had language my whole life! I was always on grade level in school, I have an EdD now all because of my mom, all because she learned ASL.
Growing up, I thought that was normal. That’s my “normal” anyway. But then I started teaching high school. Most of my high school students struggled with basic reading and writing and even ASL. I knew to expect that in this population from time to time but I was shocked to see that as the norm. I wanted to understand why. What happened before they got to high school? Because by high school, they should have more world knowledge but they didn’t, so I wanted to understand what happened in the years before high school. So I really wondered about that for some time. I noticed that one commonality among my students who struggled is that their parents didn’t sign. When I present, I always ask the audience, “How many of my students’ parents know ASL (fluently)?” They guess 25%, 30%, something like that. In truth, the answer is ZERO. In seven years of teaching mainstream deaf education, none of the parents knew ASL. Some students had a few home signs, or some very basic ASL vocabulary, but none could have a full conversation with their child. That’s a problem! That statistic is shocking! Zero. I had 70 or 80 students who couldn’t access communication with their families in the home.
LG: And that’s just you! But what about all the other deaf ed teachers out there, throughout the US, throughout the world. If that statistic is similar throughout, wow!
ND: Worldwide it’s probably worse! I’m just shocked that this statistic hasn’t garnered media attention, a spotlight, but no one’s discussing this. If a hearing child grows up without language, people would be shocked but this is so prevalent among deaf children. That bothered me. I was just always thinking, “why, what’s the problem here?”
Within deaf ed, there are a lot of discussions about curriculum, approach, oral etc. Teaching methods? There are so many courses and conversations on that and on whether students should be mainstreamed or placed in residential schools, special day classes, how many students should be in a class? There’s this famous statistic that’s quoted all the time, that the average deaf adult reads at a 4th grade level. This quote has persisted since the 70s. And some (standardized) tests continue to show this. This suggests that changes to the curriculum, changes to teachers, changes to the schools themselves aren’t budging the needle. I just wondered what other factors might be at play. I was interested in parents. Not to criticize them but I just wondered, if they can’t communicate with their child, can’t teach their child, that has the potential to impact the child for the rest of their lives.
LG: What’s that you typically say, “Who is a child’s first teacher? Their parents at home.” Children’s first teachers are their parents.
ND: Right, “home is the first school.”
LG: Right, that’s it!
ND: Right, so parents are the first teachers. I just can’t stop wondering, “why don’t parents sign?” Is it resources? I mean, my mom all those years ago didn’t have the internet. She’d never met a deaf person, she didn’t have a deaf mentor. What makes my mom different from all these other parents? And it’s important to understand that my high school students, their parents aren’t awful parents, they love their children and care about them. They support them and want the best for them. It’s not about that. So, what is it that makes them not sign?
That was the start of my study.
It’s funny; I was a little unsure of how to approach this work. My first plan was actually to interview parents who did not learn ASL. But I realized, wow that’s really sensitive. Would folks feel free to share everything? Hard to know.
LG: And would they be completely truthful, or more reticent?
ND: Right, and I’m sure they know the answer to that question, why they didn’t learn to sign.
So I changed my approach and focused instead on those parents who did learn ASL.
I interviewed them. I used something called “grounded theory,” which means I went into this without any hypotheses, without any preconceptions as to what I might find. I honestly had no idea. I just wanted to see what they said. This is an appropriate approach when the topic of the study isn’t relying on a strong or sizable body of literature. Really there’s very little research on this topic. I had to start at the beginning.
Participants’ income varied. Their upbringing – rural or urban – varied. Their age at the time of their deaf child’s birth and the decade of their child’s birth varied. There was a lot of variation among several factors that could have explained my findings, but didn’t. But one thing that remained constant was this notion of, “I have to talk to my kid.” They were surprised to learn that they are “abnormal.” Like, “yes of course I learned ASL.”
LG: Just like you!
ND: Right, that!
LG: You thought it was normal for hearing parents of deaf children to learn ASL.
ND: They said, “yes of course I learned ASL. I have to talk to my kid.” So I tried to draw a bit more out, like “yes, and what else?” It seemed they felt, “why are you asking me this? Of course I learned ASL! It’s common sense!” So as I examined these responses, I realized the key was acceptance. They did not agonize over what to do or look into different cures. They say, “I have a deaf child. How do I communicate with them? How do I have a relationship with them? ASL.” And they steamroll through the process from there.
ND: Yeah, acceptance. [The families] are bookish, they take classes, and find various other ways to learn. And it was seeing this that led me to develop the “Parental Acceptance Theory” or PAT.
This acceptance was the key.
Parents of disabled children may have this vision of what their child’s life will be like. But if they’re deaf or otherwise disabled, that may conflict with the vision they have for their child. At this point, they either accept the child they have or begin the process of denial and try to rehabilitate their child with speech and further denial etc.
Acceptance, on the other hand, let me try to explain this perfectly: imagine the perfect child. Other parents may have this issue where they get stuck because they can’t give up on the vision they have for their child. But parents who accept their child do so and adjust to their new reality. And I think this is so powerful!
I think back to the parents of my [high school] students. They always had new treatments on the backs of their minds, wondering “Should they get a cochlear implant? Should they continue speech? Or try to find something else.” But they keep looking because they haven’t accepted the child they have. The child they have is deaf.
I truly think acceptance is key. If parents aren’t consumed by thinking of “what the next therapy” is, then they’d start learning ASL from the beginning. And this plays into the common misconception that sign and speech are separate…
LG: That they’re in conflict.
ND: But really they’re not. You can have both!
LG: And there’s mounting evidence that more language facilitates more language, you don't have to pick one. You can collect various linguistic tools.
ND: Right, as I developed this theory, I imagined a slide on a playground. Parents begin their journey at birth and start climbing the rungs of the ladder to the top of the slide. They may struggle, experience ambivalence, others may be critical of their choices, they may wont for time and fiscal resources for classes. But if they accept their child as deaf, it will be easier to overcome these challenges, make it to the top of the slide, and slide down smoothly. Because there are so many resources out there, like…
LG: Like ASL at Home, yes!
ND: For example, just throwing that out. Free advertisement time. *gestures holding up a book* So, yeah, there are many resources available, especially with the internet. But if parents haven’t accepted that their child is deaf, they can’t take advantage of everything that’s out there. They’re still in the tunnel of…
LG: Looking for a cure. Where’s the cure? How do we fix this?
ND: One thing I find interesting, of the parents that I interviewed whose children were already grown, as opposed to the parents who still had young children, the parents of adult children were just kind of keeping on keeping on. They were happy and still had a good relationship [with their children]. Conversely, the parents of young children were still experiencing some angst as to whether they made the right decision for their child, whether they were on the right path, because they hadn’t yet seen the full fruits of their labor and their decision. They still accepted their deaf child but perhaps hadn’t fully accepted their decision to learn ASL. So the groups were different in that way. Interesting.
LG: And I wonder, like you mentioned, there’s no media spotlight on the horrors of language deprivation, encouraging discussion about this phenomenon, and raising awareness. Instead, the media has a lot of misinformation which is affecting those parents and their decision to go ahead and learn ASL. So perhaps this misinformation and misunderstanding among members of the media, these parents remain unsure of their decision.
ND: Right. To the media, ASL is still “new” and to use it in public…
One father I interviewed said, “Sometimes I still hope for a miracle.” I asked if that hope disrupted his language acquisition process and he admitted that it had. He had refrained from fully immersing himself, like he would “wade” in the ASL community but then come back out, then dip back in, etc. So there was one person who admitted to not being fully committed to his decision to learn ASL, he had not fully accepted his child’s deafness. So he did kind of hope for “greener pastures,” and that’s interesting to me.
LG: But it didn’t fully put the process on halt.
ND: No they didn’t.
LG: They still went ahead [with learning ASL] even though they still had some uncertainty, but still went ahead. But the result of that is the child still has language! If the process had fully been put on the back burner while they looked for a “cure” or what-have-you, speaking (orally) to the child, the child would have gotten further and further behind linguistically. So it’s interesting that, while they had some of the same uncertainty that others [who don’t learn ASL] experience, they decided to learn ASL at least for now, thinking, “maybe later we won’t need it,” you know, that trope of who “needs” ASL, who’s a good “candidate” for ASL. No one is a “candidate” for any language, but that’s common rhetoric around this issue.
ND: Right. Younger parents were still more unsure as they were still early in their journey to [full] acceptance with their deaf child learning ASL. Yet they carried on. Many people ask me, “Ok, what does that mean? What do you do now?” I joke, “oh that’s your problem now,” but no I’m kidding. Really, I think what it means is that we need an open conversation. I believe that acceptance is important. My concern is what do we do to foster that acceptance. “Yes, you have a deaf child. That’s fine. That’s ok. That’s cool! You get to learn a new culture, a new language, it’s cool!”
You know, the recent movie “Eternals,” through things like this, more and more people are getting exposure to ASL and Deaf culture. You know, my vision is that in the future, when new parents welcome a deaf baby, their neighbor or something who’s like, “Oh hey, how’s your new baby doing?” and the parent responds, “they’re great, they’re deaf,” the neighbor will be like, “oh cool, so you’re learning ASL,” because they already know if you have a deaf child, that’s what you do. They learn from TV, from movies etc. that it’s normal to learn ASL with your deaf child. I always tell my college students that in a perfect world, ASL would be boring. It wouldn’t be so…
LG: So novel or exotic.
ND: It’s just the status quo. I think that’s important and we’re still in the process of getting to that point. And of course it’s three steps forward and two steps back.
LG: Yes. Always. So, if you could pick one thing to change to really promote that early acceptance, as soon as the child is identified as deaf or hard of hearing, fostering acceptance. If you could change one thing, I realize this may be an impossible question, to get yoru theory out there and maybe test it, what would you change?
ND: Change about the world…
LG: Maybe focusing on the early identification process. You know, bringing the baby for a newborn hearing screening. “Oh, the baby failed the test.” First the word “failed” is problematic but putting that aside…the parents find out their baby did not pass the test, instead of sending them to an audiologist, a surgeon, ya know?
ND: Now, other people might disagree with this, you know LEAD-K, SB-210, they’ve done a good job with these. The government is involved. There are laws regarding tracking [linguistic] milestones. That’s great and I applaud these efforts. But I’ve noticed one thing and this isn’t a criticism, these efforts are great. They’ve changed education. But I’ve noticed that within these efforts they have to be more politically correct and “prim and proper” but I really think we need to be more aggressive. We need to call [language deprivation] abuse!
If you want someone to stop smoking, you don’t hint like, “oh you know, smoking is bad.” No, you say, “smoking will kill you.” How exactly to do this, I’m not sure, but we need to be more aggressive and be more blunt, not to parents…
LG: But to the system!
ND: “You don’t know ASL! Wow, that’s awful!” I know some people might not feel right with that, you know wanting to “catch more flies with honey,” but I just feel we need to be more confrontational about this. People have to know the consequences of not having early language exposure, the life-long consequences of language deprivation. You and I have discussed all of the various impacts, social, mental health, literacy, and the list goes on and the research on these is growing. All this inspires me to be more aggressive. But how, I’m not sure.
LG: Perfect, “become more aggressive.” “Call a spade a spade.” Don’t tip-toe around the issue. “Coat it in honey,” you said.
Ok, my last question for you to wrap this all up: what advice do you have for parents?
ND: I want parents to know it’s ok. Having an emotional response, having some angst, that’s ok and that’s normal. There’s so much conflicting information out there and so many resources, it can be very overwhelming. But keep going. One step at a time. I’ve interviewed many parents and they talk about going to these Starbucks meet-ups and they worry that they’re not good enough. And interacting with children, you don’t need college-level ASL. Start at the beginning and keep making progress. The parents and child can “grow up” together! That’s important. Parents should not feel pressure to be highly proficient, native-like in ASL very quickly. That isn’t necessary. Just take it one step at a time. Keep going and you’ll get better with time. Just as the parents learned English gradually as children, it’s the same process for ASL. So, yeah, I want to tell parents, “it’s ok!” “You started. That’s great! Keep going! There are many in the community, including professionals, to support you! Take advantage of all these resources. They’re ready for you!”
LG: Perfect! Thanks so much for joining me for this discussion. I just wish everyone knew about your dissertation. And I want to let everyone know it’s available here. Thank you so much, Dr. Dutra, for your time.
ND: Thank you! My pleasure!