Deaf teenagers are looking ahead to the future and striving for independence. Yet how do we help them do this when their efforts — and all of our lives — are being upended by the COVID-19 pandemic?
The key is to provide strong family support. National Deaf Center research shows that deaf teenagers with strong family support are more successful after high school. It plays an important role in the development of independence, resilience, and strength. It also gets a boost for caregivers and kids alike when we build a network of support that includes extended family, friends, and role models.
But that can be easier said than done. Here are some strategies to help provide strong family support for deaf teenagers and address the unique challenges created by the pandemic.
Check In With Each Other
Acknowledge and offer compassion for how disappointed, sad, angry, or intensely frustrated your deaf teenager may be with these unprecedented circumstances. With open lines of communication, they can be your problem-solving partners, empowered to figure out a new daily routine or difficult online class assignment.
Use these tips to improve communication with deaf teenagers, which focus on reducing assumptions, creating space, and taking advantage of technology. Try new ways to communicate, such as starting a family group text. Whether by using American Sign Language (ASL) or voice-to-text phone apps, it’s essential to make sure everyone is included in conversations at home.
Social connection is vital for a teenager’s mental health — a critical area of concern, since deaf people face greater mental health risks, and reduced social opportunities is one of the root causes of gaps in their employment and education.
Ask teens if they’ve checked in with their friends or classmates recently. Group chats can be done through text messaging or video, depending on their communication preferences. If they have not tried using video relay services to connect with hearing friends or family, this may be a good time to start.
Connecting with deaf culture can also offer many benefits for teenagers, especially if they are the only deaf person in their family, and can be found through joining Junior NAD, seeing Deaf Success stories, or even following the hashtag #DeafTalent on social media. Motivate them to seek out a mentor; research shows deaf youth who participate in mentorship programs develop greater confidence, self-worth, and deaf identity, which can in turn build self-esteem.
Support Online Learning
Online classes are a new experience for many students, yet they bring many unique challenges for deaf students who may need new ways to access this new way of learning. First and foremost, make sure that they have full access and the accommodations they need, because educators need to remember accessibility in the rush to online instruction.
Check in with your child about how their school is managing online classes. Ask questions, such as:
What platforms are being used?
Are the accommodations that worked for them in-person at school working for them in an online environment, or do they need something else? For example, would a note-taker help in an advanced placement class?
Are ASL interpreters and speech-to-text providers included in the online learning platforms? Are videos captioned?
If your teen uses an assistive listening device, do they know how to use it effectively in an online environment?
Does your teen have what they need to take control of their online learning?
If your teenager gets pushback about access or accommodations, don’t give up. Know their rights and advocate together. They have the right to participate equally in online learning, which includes access to all course content and school information.
If an IEP is in place, strive to collaborate with the school on informal agreements that could bridge gaps. Refer to virtual IEP tip sheets or use an IEP app to understand your child’s rights and prepare you to work with the school. In the meantime, document any regression in academic or behavioral skills.
Set High Expectations
Families who believe that a deaf teenager will succeed are making a real impact on that teen’s future. According to a National Deaf Center analysis, parental expectations have an even greater impact than parental involvement.
Deaf children whose parents held the expectation that they would be employed after high school were more likely to enroll in college, and children whose parents expected them to attend college were more likely to complete college. In each case, young deaf adults exceeded their parents' expectations.
So set high expectations, explain why you have them, and encourage your teen to brainstorm and set their own goals.
Seek Accessible Resources
Many online games, activities, and videos are not accessible for deaf teenagers. Work with your teen to find online resources that are. Some organizations have started compiling them, such as the National Deaf Education Conference and the Deaf Education Library at Boston University.
Deafverse, the first-ever ASL-accessible online game, is also a fun option and can be a useful tool for building valuable self-determination skills at home. Check out these five tips for making the most of Deafverse at home.
Keep Planning for the Future
Planning for life after high school should not stop because of this crisis. Your teen has probably been preparing already, whether that was meeting with vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselors to explore potential careers, visiting colleges, signing up for summer camp, or applying for a summer job.
To keep up that planning momentum, schedule online meetings with their transition support team and VR counselors. Take advantage of colleges that are now offering virtual college tours, open houses, and even classroom experiences. Encourage teens to use this time to explore and apply for scholarships, take online classes, or volunteer.
This is a time that requires everyone to be more creative with how we manage our time at home. And holding a deaf teenager back from doing activities or becoming independent can lead to challenges later in life.
Ask your teenager if they would like to cook dinner with a new recipe, sew some face masks for your family, or repair something around the house. Encourage them to take the initiative and aim high. There are many online tutorials that can be an opportunity for them to build essential skills — and self-determination — they can use throughout their life.
Know You Are Not Alone
Just like your teenager needs to connect, so do you — for assistance, information, and a like-minded group of people who understand your experiences. Check out Hands and Voices, the Parent Center Hub, Council de Manos, or a local group in your town. Contact the National Deaf Center Help Team, which provides year-round assistance to families and schools.
Working together, we can support our deaf youth to endure, engage, and even excel during these extraordinary times.