Research Article: The reality of every day communication for a deaf child using sign language in a developing country

Date Published: December , 2017

Publisher: Makerere Medical School

Author(s): Zandile M Blose, Lavanithum N Joseph.


Research that focuses on the communication between deaf children and their hearing families is scarce despite the majority of deaf children being born into hearing families where a common communication mode needs to be forged.

The aim of the study was to explore, describe and compare the nature of communication across typical daily contexts of a deaf child who uses South African Sign Language (SASL) and who is born into a hearing family with no prior experience of SASL.

A case study design which included quantitative and qualitative components was used to observe a nine year old grade one child with profound hearing loss. Spontaneous communication was observed with 13 communication partners in the home context and these included the mother, a sibling and peers. Two educators and 11 peers were observed in the educational context. Surveillance cameras were used to obtain 27 hours of video-recording in the home and 19 hours at the school. Interviews were conducted with the mother, siblings, educators, and the deaf child.

It was observed that communication using SASL, albeit minimal, home signs, natural gestures and oral communication were used extensively. Due to a mismatch in the communication mode in the home context communication interactions were fewer and predominantly oral, impoverished and with frequent breakdowns whereas the communication interactions in the school were characterized by SASL, was meaningful and had fewer communication breakdowns.

Communication for deaf children within the home is problematic as communication partners are not fluent in SASL.

Partial Text

The South African healthcare infrastructure is considered to be reasonable in terms of its development status when compared to other African countries. South Africa is considered to be a developing country. While there is paucity of research related to the prevalence of hearing loss in South Africa, Swanepoel et. al’s1 report estimates of 3 in 1000 infants in the private sector are diagnosed with a congenital hearing loss compared to 4–6 infants in the public sector. The majority of deaf children are born into hearing families where a common communication mode does not exist as observed by Magnusson2. Yet research that focuses on the communicative interactions of deaf children and their hearing families is scarce, limited and outdated according to Klatter-Folmer et al3. Universally, deaf children are deprived of the ability to communicate and interact with people that they come into contact with both on a daily basis and less frequently. The lower case ‘d’ in the word ‘deaf ‘ in a clinical context, is used to describe an individual’s hearing status and refers to individuals with a profound hearing loss and who present with the inability to develop speech and language or benefit from speech reception as reported by Martin et al.4. On the other hand, Penn5 refers to the upper case ‘D’ in the term ‘Deaf’ as those individuals who have a hearing loss and share a common language and culture. Martin et al.4 further describes these Deaf individuals as part of the Deaf culture who use Sign Language and are considered a linguistic minority. The communication interactions between deaf and hearing individuals is a complex process as a common communication mode and understanding between the two communication partners is not readily available. Most6 claimed that communication is considered to be a social process and any interference with this process will have a considerable impact on interactions.

A case study design which included quantitative and qualitative components was used to meet the aim of the study. Purposive sampling was used to select the participants of the study. Figure 1 below is representative of the aim and objectives of the study, selection criteria used and description of the home and school context.

The purpose of the study was to describe and facilitate an understanding for hearing families and professionals who work with deaf children about the reality of living with a deaf child in terms of communication, interactions, schooling and language development from a South African perspective. The findings of the study revealed discrepancies in communication interactions between the child who is deaf and communication partners in different contexts, i.e. home and school. These differences in the communication interactions in both contexts raise concerns regarding the communication situation for Ayabonga and other children who are deaf who use Sign Language in similar contexts. What are the implications of being exposed to two different environments daily in terms of one being communicatively rich and the other being communicatively impoverished? From the study it was evident that due to communication partners in the home context not being proficient in SASL, communication interactions were not optimal. In contrast, the communication partners in the school context were proficient in SASL thus the communication interactions were rich in nature. The commonality of a communication mode between communication partners, in this case, Ayabonga with hearing and deaf individuals, contributes to the level of closeness between herself and her communication partners. In the school, it was evident that there was a sense of belonging and no isolation of any form. Professionals that are involved in the life of a child who is deaf need to stress the importance of having a common communication mode in the home context.

The gathering of data via multiple methods increased reliability and validity of the study as the researcher was able to triangulate the data. The child who was deaf was observed in natural settings. The researcher was a first language isiZulu speaker who the family and community were able to identify with linguistically and culturally during the observations in the home context and this enhanced the quality of the data collection. As this was a single case study, it allowed the researcher to obtain indepth and detailed data. The information obtained from the participants through interviews and observations was valuable to create an understanding of how communication interactions take place between a deaf signing child in a home and school context in South Africa. The study highlighted the multimodal nature of communication and challenges experienced by a child who uses Sign Language with hearing communication partners.

A detailed analysis of the language components were not fully explored in terms of content, form and use for both signed and oral communication. Similarly, the components of signed communication in terms of use of SASL, home signs, pointing and showing, and pantomime were not individually analyzed and compared. The signing proficiency of participants in the home context was not explored fully to measure communication partners SASL skills and vocabulary.

The research was motivated by the need to investigate how communication interactions take place in the home with hearing individuals following the acquisition of Sign Language by the child who is deaf. The school context was used as a reference to compare the nature of communication interactions in these two contexts. The findings of the study revealed that the child who is deaf presented with metalinguistic skills in that she used differing communication modalities to accommodate the different communication partners and was able to understand each communication partner in her environment. Idiosyncratic home signs were still evident in the home due to little if any knowledge of SASL by the deaf child’s communication partners. The home signs allowed for communication interactions to take place so that the child not isolated, however, the quality and type of communication interactions were of concern. The communication interactions were limited and impoverished due to a common communication mode not being readily available between the child who is deaf and hearing participants in the home context. The lack of mode matching appeared to be a core contributing factor to the limited communication interactions in the home and the increased communication breakdowns. On the other hand, contrasting results were obtained in the school context. Meaningful communication interactions were reported and observed in the school context. Minimal communication breakdowns were observed in this context compared to the home context. The importance of the role that needs to be played by the audiologist was clearly evident as it has implications for the communicative development of the child who is deaf. The importance of detailed and appropriate informational counseling, facilitation of family centered intervention and counseling and the implementation of early intervention programs were highlighted. The study highlighted the importance of Sign Language acquisition by hearing communication partners to assist in improving communication interactions with individuals who are deaf, particularly family members. From the study, it was evident that despite the availability of policies related to deaf education and implementation of intervention services by audiologists, there appears to be limited or no evidence on the practical implementation of such policies. This places an unfair burden on the child who has to take responsibility for establishing and maintaining communication interaction particularly in the home environment.




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