Working with Older, Deaf Refugee Students

The issue

Hearing students with a first language who move to another country, such as the United States, from another country will need 6 months to 2 years to develop Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS – basic conversation skills) and at least 5 years to develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency Skills (CALPS – academic language).  Deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) students often need longer to develop these language skills as many arrive in the United States without a first language and with little or no exposure to a formal education.  If they are younger than 5 years of age, then they are at the threshold of the optimal language learning “window” and often develop a first language naturally if placed in a situation where they have barrier free access to a language.  DHH students who first have access to language at an older age may experience more challenges when trying to acquire a first language.

Herein, we will use the United States context. When students arrive, language development is the critical first step, however schools are also tasked with getting high school students ready for post-secondary options, employment, and independent living.

What we know

We know that language deprivation has serious consequences on a student’s academic skills, cognitive development, ability to think abstractly, and ability to perform higher level functional skills (i.e. budgeting, problem-solving, scheduling appointments, etc). Students may also arrive with trauma that they cannot describe.  It is imperative that these students be able to discuss what they know: – their family (including family members’ names), friends, food, and previous experiences.

While all of this appears daunting, there is hope. With proper support, students can and do develop a first language – even at older ages.  First and foremost, students need access to a full and complete language (English and/or American Sign Language). Pictures, gifs, and short videos are an invaluable tool when working with students who are developing a first language.  Students may also benefit from books/maps/posters about their native country so they have points of reference when wanting to discuss their homeland (caveat – these items should only be introduced if they do not cause the student to relive traumatic events). If the student has a first language, it may be beneficial to learn signs from that language and, if possible, bring in a DHH adult fluent in that language.

What we don’t know and implications

At this time, there aren’t any formal assessments specifically designed for DHH students who have very recently moved to the United States.  This is complicated by the fact that these students come from many different countries with many different spoken/sign languages. There is cultural bias inherent in formal assessments.  Some students (due to cultural reasons) may be displaying “learned helpless” and have not yet had a chance to demonstrate what they know and can do.  In addition, many have never had access to formal education so any formal assessment attempted may not yield valid results. When older refugee students participate in initial special education assessments, special education teams may want to work to qualify these students for Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing services based on the audiogram, language and communication interviews, and transition. The communication and transition evaluations can often be accomplished through gestures and pictures. It is important that each student has their vision assessed as vision issues can impede their ability to access sign language as well as the curriculum.

Many DHH students, if they move into a community that has a Deaf program or Deaf school, do have the opportunity to access language directly from staff and peers.  Students who move into smaller communities where they may be the only DHH student may not have as many opportunities to communicate directly with other sign language users. This may slow their acquisition of a signed language.  These students may benefit from connecting with same age DHH peers through FaceTime, Zoom, or other on-line video conference call programs.  If possible, it would be beneficial if students can connect with other DHH students from their native country.

Older DHH students may have only a few short years of formal schooling before aging out of special education. Most states allow students to attend transition programs until they are 21 years old. Only Michigan, U.S.A. allows students to remain in special education until they are 25. There are a few programs that support Deaf adult refugees who continue to need language and independent living skills support such as ThinkSelf, an Adult Basic Education Program in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A. and the Deaf Refugee Advocacy Program in Rochester, New York, U.S.A.

Posted on June 25, 2020 by
Kelly Anderson
D/HH Teacher and Autism Specialist
Metro Deaf School
Kanderson{at}mdsmn.org

Further reading