How Does Hearing Loss Affect Self-Esteem? Ask Sophia.
Like many parents of special needs children, I often worry about my child’s self- esteem more than anything else. My eight-year-old daughter, Sophia, is hearing impaired and while I certainly don’t want her to miss the actual “content” of her world—the math instruction at school or a friend’s banter at a slumber party—my paramount concern is that she does not feel excluded or isolated by virtue of missing that content.
Research wonk that I am, I frequently search the web for studies on the development of self-esteem and self-worth. Recently I located a study that examined the impact of disability on children’s self-concept.
This study, by Christine Johnston and Kenneth E. Sinclair at the University of Sydney, analyzed data from children with learning, physical and intellectual disabilities. It confirmed a host of earlier studies showing that, while children with disabilities score lower (as compared to non-disabled control groups) on measures of self directly affected by their disability, they showed no difference with respect to global or general self-worth. This sounded right: Sophia, I presumed, might rate herself lower on skills and measures related to hearing, but not overall.
Sophia attends a mainstream school in which she is the only deaf child in her class. Her hearing aids are a visible marker of her difference. She doesn’t seek to hide them (not yet, anyway): she wears her hair in a high ponytail, and instead of choosing camouflage beige, she has chosen hearing aids with a “clear” casing to show the inner workings of the technology, and glittery gold earmolds.
Sophia’s diagnosis of hearing loss came shortly after birth and she has worn hearing aids since she was three months old. For her, all of the technology and the hearing checks, the appointments and the accommodations, are “routine.” She is adept at explaining her hearing loss to strangers, and she is able to advocate for herself at school and with her friends. So I was surprised the other night, as she danced around and around our living room, to hear her say,
“Daddy, do you think I’ll dance like this at my wedding?”
“Yes, Sophia, I do.”
“But”—she stammered—”do you think any one will love me—I mean—with my hearing aids?”
I know that all kids question whether they are lovable. But Sophia’s questions were linked directly to her deafness. When I tucked her into bed that night, I said, “You know, Sophia, there are people in this world who make up reasons not to love others—because of the color of their skin, or their religion, or some other difference between them—but those people are not focused on what matters. If a person doesn’t love you because you have a hearing loss, then that person is not worthy of your love. You are a wonderful person with a full heart. People who know what matters in this life will come to know you and love you for who you are.”
As I was saying all this, I wondered: is this really where I should be heading, into a discussion about social justice and prejudice? Shouldn’t I just hug my girl and ask, with the disbelief I truly felt: “YOU?!—who can read any face, who can quiet any baby, who can cause any dog, however hyper, to settle calmly, magically, at your feet? YOU?!—whose eyes are rivaled only by Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay? Someone not love YOU? Daddy and I are already buying bolts for the door to keep the hordes away.”
But I didn’t change my course. Sophia was telling us that she knew: she knew she had a difference. And she was asking us: would she be OK?
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