The Psychology of Deafness

signlanguage-handsUntil recently, the study of deafness has been viewed within a deficit model, with focus on the “almost invariably negative effects of a sensory impairment or deficit” (Gregory, Hartley, Constructing Deafness). In my opinion, this has been a largely distorted view of professionals who have had no experience within the deaf community and have only viewed deaf people as a group who is deviating from the norm. In a primarily male-dominated society, many events and medical conditions have not been properly studied and documented, simply because they have concerned and affected only women. Similar is the ignorance, misunderstanding and disregard for issues concerning deaf individuals in a primarily hearing world. In fact, the first attempts, at least in the field of Cognitive Psychology, to study deaf people have been done in effort to understand the functioning of the hearing. Throughout human history, there is a myriad of examples when minorities, or underprivileged people have been labeled as ‘different‘ and, therefore, not worth too much effort to be understood, or helped. Sadly, this appears to be a challenge even for scientists and researchers who, above all, should be dispassionate and objective observers and analyzers of phenomena and human behavior. Following the evolutionary perspective in Psychology, we can allude there is an inborn instinct in species to avoid something that is new, foreign and unfamiliar, as it might hurt us. Even if this is the case, humanity has walked a long way in this process of evolution and if we are to take pride in being highly civilized and humane, we are to try to understand the unfamiliar better before putting any sort of label. The population of the United States includes more than 1 million deaf people, most of whom chose to identify themselves as part of the Deaf culture. People within this culture really do share unique values and norms, and use American Sign Language as a primary way of communication (Stebnicki, Coeling, 1999). These are not people who want to be victimized, ignored or viewed as impaired and in many situations the only difference between a hearing and a deaf individual can be the different treatment that we have.

A lot of what has been discussed in the field of Psychology regarding deaf culture and the issues of deaf people has been observed by hearing professionals. Further, many of these psychologists have assumed a distant and principally negative stance towards deaf people. Within this deficit model, many clinical psychologists in the 1960s and 1970s have described characteristics of deaf people, inferring that deafness has a negative effect on personality. Some of the characteristics imagined at the time to describe deaf people are: egocentric, rigid, impulsive and lacking in insight (Rainer and Altshuler, 1967), aloof, disengaged and isolated from other people (Myklebust, 1960). As outraging and absurd these statements might seem to us today, they have still influenced the field of Psychology, mental health and helping professions (but also, probably, education and sociology). Opinions of the sort have dominated the science journals for the past few decades and have received the proper amount of criticism only about a decade ago. As more recent studies indicate, the perspective of the deaf person is critical and cannot be undermined (Andrews, Leigh & Weiner, Deaf People: Evolving Perspectives from Psychology, Education and Sociology). On the contrary, it is precisely deaf people and the deaf community that are being influenced and affected by the work of psychologists, therapists, counsellors and teachers.


Communication is a dominant characteristic for human kind and psychologists believe it plays a critical role in formulating one’s personality. The psychiatrist David Farber explains that children use language in their identification process, by adopting the parents’ style and vocabulary. In the case of a deaf child, many things can be different. However, the belief that deaf children are not capable of developing literacy abilities is no more that a myth and misunderstanding. On the contrary, with much earlier identification of hearing loss and appropriate intervention and education, deaf children can excel in their literacy. Yet, it is still the case that many children fail to develop “age-appropriate reading and writing abilities” (Mayer C, 2007). I wonder why this is? Is it really the child’s ‘failure’ or our failure as professionals and educators to provide the appropriate methods, strategies and, above all, support?  Regardless  of whether parents use sign language, or not, the deaf child is prone to focus more on their expressions and body language in order to be able to evaluate emotional tone and context. However, if the parents do not use sign language, the child is trapped in a complicated situation where the crucial component of effective communication is absent. This can be a source of frustration, or lack of trust in others. In 1959 Sharoff explains how demanding the child’s need for communication with the parents is. He also targets our attention to understanding an issue of incredible difficulty for deaf children: “how great a rejection it must be for the child who suddenly finds all his attempts to deaf-childcommunicate with his parents denied him.”  Many deaf children live in a “verbal vacuum” for 3 to 8 years in their early life and if they go to a traditional kindergarden, ruled by the old motto: ”Sit on your hands”, this can cause considerable crisis (Gregory, Hartley, Constructing Deafness, 1991). This might greatly hinder the development of the child – before ever having the chance to learn and communicate in a language of his/her own (Sign language) – the child is already forbidden the freedom of expression. These are all issues that have to be considered by people in the educational system, not merely in the deaf pedagogical system. Early childhood is a specifically vulnerable time for the development of brain structures, normal functioning and habits. It is also the time to develop empathy, attachment and basic trust for people and care for humanity. If communication is virtually nonexistent and the child feels isolated, with his/her freedom of expression repressed, many of these integral traits might not develop properly. Research also indicates that language and communication can have an important influence on the emergence of certain behavioral problem in young children and yet, not much is done to take this into account in the practical setting. In a study by Barker, 2009, a sample of 116 severely and profoundly deaf children and 69 normally hearing children, ages 1.5 to 5 years were observed. Researcher took into consideration parent reports, videotaped observation and performance. In the study, hearing-impaired children showed more language, attention, and behavioral difficulties, and spent less time communicating with their parents than normally hearing children. It is hypothesized this is precisely because the child feels misunderstood, ashamed, or frustrated with the lack of understanding. In addition, if educators do not provide the necessary sensual/visual input (body language, facial expressions and so on), so that the child can take full advantage and understand emotional nuances, the child is more likely to be distracted or simply not interested in the process. That is why, student counselors, psychologist, educators and even nurses need to be aware of possible challenges and complications for the child.

The American Psychological Association (APA) lists and explains 10 main Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2002). Among these are described ‘2.01. Boundaries of Competence’:

  1. Psychologists provide services, teach, and conduct research with populations and in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study, or professional experience.
  2. Where scientific or professional knowledge in the discipline of psychology establishes that an understanding of factors associated with age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, or socioeconomic status is essential for effective implementation of their services or research, psychologists have or obtain the training, experience, consultation, or supervision necessary to ensure the competence of their services, or they make appropriate referrals.
  3. Psychologists planning to provide services, teach, or conduct research involving populations, areas, techniques, or technologies new to them undertake relevant education, training, supervised experience, consultation, or study.

In addition, Cooperation with other professionals (“3.09. When indicated and professionally appropriate, psychologists cooperate with other professionals in order to serve their clients/patients effectively and appropriately.”) and the Bases for scientific and professional judgments (“2.04. Psychologists’ work is based upon established scientific and professional knowledge of the discipline.”). Yet, the sad fact is that a great percentage of the counselors and psychologists do not have the necessary credentials, or experience. The few who possess such cannot possibly be asl-i-love-you-signavailable to all the people who might need their help or services. As a matter of fact, most deaf people who are treated in psychiatric settings are being placed in hearing psychiatric units, where the mental workers have no experience of working with deaf patients (Glickman & Black, 2009). This is the case not only in the United States, but in other parts of the world as well. Studies in Great Britain, for example, reveal that the needs of people who use British Sign Language as their first/preferred language are not being met in the clinical setting (McAleer, 2006).

Obviously, awareness has to be raised for this issue and the demand for qualified professionals. This goes hand in hand with a more general understanding of deaf culture among all the helping professions. It also demands awareness for possible challenges, especially for deaf children, whose parents may not be capable of providing the necessary exposure to sign language and other stimulation. Just about ten years ago, the science of Psychology realized the need for a dedicated field of Deaf Psychology as a discipline with its own rights (Pollard, 1996). The APA realized its fundamental role and responsibility, as it can either hinder or improve services and advancement in the field (Pollard, 1996).


Deaf Psychology certainly deserves its place among specific subcategories within general Psychology. This is certainly not implying the brain and mind of deaf people is different from that of hearing individuals. Quite the contrary, we need this field to show us we are not this different after all – all that might be causing an existent gap and lack of communication – is the lack of better understanding.

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5 comments for “The Psychology of Deafness

  1. September 8, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Any update on this?

    One of the major problems I see in deaf psychology is the various ways of ending up without hearing. I lost my hearing over a number of years—pretty much half every six years—until now I am totally non-hearing. I tried to learn signs and fit into the deaf culture around the age of 36. After several years, I was told that I was not deaf and started losing my interest. On the other hand, I have pretty much accepted that people will react toward me as a hearing person. They are normal humans, after all. That has helped my hostility—I know that I will have a hard time, but not because people hate me.

    Any good self-help books for such a misfit?

  2. Nathaniel
    January 25, 2012 at 11:51 am

    @David Smith: A good book for you to read would be “A Lens on Deaf Identities” by Irene W. Leigh. This book has really helped me understand how identities develop with D/deaf people. I am a Deaf man, and i have experienced labeling as “hard of hearing” and “hearing” by both Deaf, deaf, and hearing people. This has been offensive, however, this book has helped me realize some pretty interesting things about my own identity. I am more confident that I don’t need others to validate my own identity.

  3. Ben Graywolf
    March 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    David, it takes more than just losing your hearing to fit into the deaf community, deafness is a compltely different culture than the hearing world. One Book I suggest is Education and Deafness, By Peter V. Paul and Steven P. Quigley this book is a comprehensive text on the education of hearing-impaired students

  4. omary nassoro
    July 16, 2012 at 7:04 am

    i like the subject

  5. August 21, 2012 at 2:09 am


    Excellent article. I like it. Are you familiar with this new deaf think tank that we are developing, Deaf Equality and Accessibility Forum? Are you on Facebook? There was a long, interesting discussion about mental health and how our deaf community needs more professionals and mental health workers who are proficient in ASL and who can accommodate their needs. I just shared a link to your blog on the Psychology of the Deaf, if you don’t mind. If you are not familiar with our group, I would like to invite you to join. Would you be interested?

    Thank you and have a pleasant night.

    Dan McClintock
    ambassador of good will
    Deaf Equality and Accessibility Forum

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