Vygotsky's Contributions to Mentally Healthy Deaf Adults

Steven Thomas Hardy, M.A.

Gallaudet University

Washington, D. C.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky's acceptance of Russian Sign Language as a natural means of communication and instrument of thought for people who are deaf, as well as his emphasis upon the social consequences of having a disability instead of the disability itself, have germane lessons for society's perceptions of people who are deaf. Vygotsky based his work upon a historical-cultural developmental theory of higher psychological functions and acknowledgement of the role of different semiotical systems in human maturation as a person in society. These perspectives shall be used to examine various current issues in the socialization and education of individuals who are deaf. Included shall be a discussion of the current bilingual programs in various schools for the deaf in the United States of America and the Moscow Bilingual School for the Deaf as established by Dr. Galina Zaitseva.

The connection to an adoption of a holistic wellness centered model of individuals who are deaf as put forth by Dr. Alan Sussman of Gallaudet University is presented and discussed.

Vygotsky's work in defectology was continued by Ivan Sokolianskii and Alexander Meshcheriakov in their work with students who are both deaf and blind. Their work and it's relationship to Vygotskian theories shall be examined.

I would like to first of all thank you all for sharing your time with me as well as thank the conference organizers for awarding me a Junior Scholar Travel grant. Without their assistance, it would not have been possible for me to travel here and attend this important conference. This is my first international presentation on contemporary applications of the works in defectology of Lev S. Vygotsky. Since Vygotsky himself only once travelled abroad for a presentation and it was related to his work with students who are deaf (Vygotsky, 1925), it seems quite appropriate that my paper is simply a humble update of his theories regarding the education and socialization of people that are deaf or hard of hearing.

I would like to explain my choice of language and wording. I have chosen to use language that I believe emphasizes the whole person instead of the focusing upon the differing/disabling term. Thus I may use longer and more awkward English phrases, but I believe that this to be the more preferred way.

I have also used the term 'deaf' in a very inclusive sense to mean all ranges and degrees of an inability to hear instead of the terms 'Deaf', 'deaf and/or hard of hearing', and 'hearing-impaired'.

"For a blind or deaf child, blindness or deafness represent normality, not a condition of illness. He senses the handicap in question only indirectly or secondarily, as a result of his social experiences. What then does a hearing loss mean, in and of itself? It must be accepted that blindness and deafness indicate nothing other than the mere absence of one means of forming conditional links with the environment."

-Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1925)

"Deaf people can do anything but hear"

-I. King Jordan (1989)

Gallaudet University's first president who is deaf.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) is becoming widely known for his psycholinguistic work and theories regarding the relationship between thought and language (or perhaps better stated as the activities of thinking and speaking). He is not currently widely known (at least in the United States of America) for his work with people with disabilities. There are only a few publications which directly address Vygotsky's work and its application to the education of students who are deaf. (Segal, 1982; Arnold, 1985; White 1987; Knox, 1989; Knox & Kozulin, 1989; Bonkowski et. al., 1991; Hayes et. al., 1991; Zaietseva, 1992; Evans, 1993; Jamieson, 1994) It has also been far too long since a large scale joint effort between the United States of America and Russia on the instruction of students with special needs. (Gallagher, 1972) However, I strongly contend that Vygotsky's theoretical work with people with disabilities can provide great insights to many of the contemporary issues facing society and people/professionals that work with these diverse populations. I look forward to entering into a dialogue with you today regarding some of his insights as well as your own.

Over the past few years a social revolution has taken place in the United States of America effecting millions of individuals. It has been a long over due revolution for the civil rights and societal acceptance of individuals with disabilities. Some scholars (Gannon, 1989) trace and document the start of this particular social revolution to the week-long protest at Gallaudet University. Gallaudet University is the world's only liberal arts university dedicated to the education of students who are deaf, located in Washington, D.C. The student led protest, resulted in the inauguration of the first president of the university who is deaf in addition to awakening American society to the pressing need for accessibility for all people with various disabilities. Since that protest in 1988 several laws have been enacted with the goal of providing for equal access and thus reducing the psychosocial impact of various handicapping situations.

Technology and public attitudes are just two of the multitude of areas that have greatly evolved in the past six years. Although we have made great strides in the past few years, we still have a long way to go towards equality. Vygotsky's theoretical work can provide us with a model as we journey down that less travelled road.

National Sign Languages

One of the first areas, in which Vygotsky urged and continues to urge us, is to examine the acceptance of authentically developing visual-spatial signed languages as being seen as genuine languages. Vygotsky urged us to "re-evaluate traditional and practical attitudes toward ... mimicry" (Vygotsky, 1993b). Furthermore Vygotsky saw Russian sign language (mimicry) as "a genuine language with all of the wealth of its functional meaning" (Vygotsky, 1993b). Yet, this acceptance of American/Russian (and/or other nationalities) Sign Language as a natural means of communication and instrument of thought for people who are deaf and their offspring (both deaf and hearing) is still incomplete in academic, professional, and even among the social circles consisting of people who are deaf themselves.

In the past few years, a few schools in both countries have adopted a Bilingual-Bicultural (Bi-Bi) philosophy of education. While many of the pedagogical details are not uniformly agreed upon by the different schools the main emphasis is upon the acceptance and promotion of the national sign language used by people who are deaf as a first language and the written form of the country's dominate language as a second language. The schools also instruct the unique contributions of people who are deaf to society as well as those historical events which have impact upon the lives of such people in today's world.

The schools that have adopted this philosophy of education include The Learning Center for Deaf Children (USA), Indianapolis School for the Deaf (USA), California School for the Deaf-Fremont (USA), and the Moscow Bilingual School for the Deaf (Russia). While several more schools for students who are deaf are considering such changes, there are still many details that must be resolved. One of the first such details is in the terminology. The single term 'deaf' is misleading. There is a great diversity in skills and needs in this collective population described as a group of individuals who have a hearing loss. What remains to be seen in the Bi-Bi approach are the practical applications of this philosophy to multi-generational profoundly deaf as well as the late deafened child while non-signing parents that have never known a person who is deaf.

Moscow Bilingual School for the Deaf

Gatlina Zaitseva founded the Moscow Bilingual School for the Deaf in September of 1992 in collaboration with Dr Jim Kyle and Dr Benice Woll (the Centre for Deaf Studies at Bristol University in the United Kingdom) and Dr Susan Gregory (the UK Open University). The President of the school, Zaitseva, explains that the academic acceptance of Russian Sign Language (RSL) is a rather recent development and is based largely upon the theoretical writings of Vygotsky. In particular she points to his essay from the journal Questions of Defectology titled "The Collective as a factor in the development of the abnormal child". In which Vygotsky writes:

"...we have to use all the possibilities for speech activity of a deaf-mute child. We must not approach mimicry with condescension and scorn, treating it as an enemy. Rather we must understand that different forms of speech do not only compete with one another or disrupt one another's development, but that they can also serve as steps on which the deaf-mute child climbs to the mastery of speech." (Vygotsky, 1993b)

In the same essay, Vygotsky presents his concept of 'polyglossia' as it applies to the education of the child who is deaf. He states that:

"Psychological research, both experimental and clinical, agree in their demonstrations that polyglossia, that is, the mastery of several forms of speech) is an unavoidable and fruitful method of speech development and education for the deaf-mute child, given the current state of pedagogy for the deaf." (Vygotsky, 1993b)

A practical application of Vygotsky's theory of polyglossia is currently being attempted at her school. To this means, Zaitseva et al have established an educational program in which teachers (both hearing and deaf) use RSL for most of the academic disciplines. Signed Russian is used to show educational matters and British Sign Language is also used as a part of the student's English lessons. Written Russian and English languages are also taught. (Komarova, 1994) Some of Zaitseva's earlier work is also clearly illustrated in her book Use of Sign Language at Lessons of Literature in the Evening Schools for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired. (Zaitseva, 1981; Zaitseva, 1987)

Other Russian Programs

A great deal of ongoing research at the Institute of Remedial Education (formerly named the Institute of Defectology) into the use of computers as a means of providing a multiple sensory-motor system for the provision of the printed word. Thus language is being presented by a different means than sound to those individuals who cannot hear it. (Knox, 1989) These efforts have demonstrated the positive value of this approach and it clearly warrants further research. Their work may be bringing them closer to the stated aim of the Institute of Remedial Education - that is to develop the student's oral communication with the hearing world. (Lubovsky & Martsinovskaja, 1994) Their successful efforts at attempting and researching various educational practices is to be studied and perhaps emulated.

Deaf History

Another important element in the Bi-Bi approach is that of the instruction of history as it relates to the modern day world of the individual who is deaf. The history and culture surrounding such people is rich indeed. (Van Cleve, 1987; Padden and Humphries, 1988; Gannon, 1989; Fischer & Lane, 1993) The First International Conference on Deaf History was held in the summer of 1991 at Gallaudet University and the second such conference shall be held this autumn in Germany. (Fischer & Lane, 1993) Numerous books, television shows, and motion pictures have begun to show characters that are deaf in a greater variety of roles as more importantly as authentic human beings. The Deaf Way conference in the summer of 1989 was the largest gathering of performers, dancers, artists, and professionals that are deaf or involved with people who are deaf ever assembled in one place. This international event took place at Gallaudet University and drew more that 10,000 people together for more than one week.

This promotion of the historical and cultural development of people who are deaf is reinforced throughout social organizations and residential school for individuals who are deaf, among other places throughout the various states. The history of the education of students who are deaf in the former Soviet Union is only now coming to light. (Abramov, 1991) Russia contains a relatively unknown but rich educational history dating back to 1806 with the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna's sponsorship for a school in Saint Petersburg. (Williams, 1993) Russian people who are deaf are rediscovering their own cultural heritage and taking immense pride in it. (Abramov, 1991)

Vygotsky would find agreement in these attempts at addressing the historical nature of today's culture as it pertains to individuals who are deaf. He does state that:

"...the whole question about the human nature of deaf- mute children is essentially a question of social experience in his upbringing. Instead of metaphysical constructs or empirical studies which are based on the superficial resemblance of observed features, the criterion of pedagogical practice is advanced here: The only proper way to pose the problem of development in deaf-mute children is as a historical problem." (Vygotsky, 1993b)

I believe that a positive and self affirming sense of one's place in history can only increase one's own sense of self worth. Today that is happening in many different countries for people who are deaf.

Higher Psychological Functions

Vygotsky based his work upon a historical-cultural developmental theory of higher psychological functions. Applications and further aspects of his work is being superbly researched by people at the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition in California, the University of New Mexico, Clark University among others. Many publications have disseminated his writings and information on Vygotsky's theories regarding the Zone of Proximal Development and educational practices (i.e. Wertsch, 1985; Moll, 1990; Van Der Veer & Valsiner 1991; Van Der Veer & Valsiner, 1994) Vygotsky's concept of mediated learning has been expanded upon and is well presented by others.(i.e. Feuerstein, 1980; Presseisen & Kozulin, 1992; Meadows 1993) Higher psychological functions in an individual with a hearing loss can be intact yet fundamentally different. The degree that society and social interactions among all members are meaningfully accessible shall be the degree of difference internalized by the individual with a disability.

The degree to which the social-cultural milleau is meaningfully accessible, shall mediate the maturation and development of individuals in a similar way that more capable peers and adults do. The mass media and the external tools embedded in our culture mediate all individuals through their own zone of proximal development. The area of concern for individuals who cannot hear is that they are culturally deprived of many social mediating mediums. It is in the social mediation arena that we must focus, if we are to reduce the differences along the developmental pathway for individuals who have disabilities.

Lessons for Society

Although they were written many decades ago, Vygotsky's writings still contain germane lessons for society's perceptions of people with disabilities/who are deaf. Vygotsky clearly stated that

"Any physical handicap-be it blindness or deafness- not only alters the child's relationship with the world, but above all, affects his or her interaction with other people. Any organic defect appears as a social abnormality in behavior. It goes without saying, of course, that blindness and deafness, in and of themselves, are biological factors; in no way are they social factors. However, the educator must deal not so much with these factors alone as with their social consequences. When we have a blind boy before us as the object of education, then we must deal with not so much blindness itself as with the conflicts that arise for a blind child when he enters life. After all, from the very beginning, he interacts with the environment differently than do normal people.

For a blind or deaf child, blindness or deafness represent normality, not a condition of illness. He senses the handicap in question only indirectly or secondarily, as a result of his social experiences. What then does a hearing loss mean, in and of itself? It must be accepted that blindness and deafness indicate nothing other than the mere absence of one means of forming conditional links with the environment." (Vygotsky, 1993b)

Vygotsky's emphasis upon the social consequences of having a disability instead of the disability itself is echoed by several American writers (Wright, 1983; Sussman, 1982) Professionals in the field have discussed how these social consequences have impacted upon mental health issues facing people who are deaf and service providers for such people. Among those issues is the lack of sign language interpreters and applied standards for this profession, the lack of closed captioned educational programming both on television and videocassette, and a severe shortage of well-trained qualified professionals in a variety of human service fields. (Steinberg, 1991) One of the most damaging consequences of having a disability is that of societal attitudes towards such individuals and the internalization of those negative and paternalistic interactions.

The connection to an adoption of a holistic wellness centered model of individuals who are deaf is put forth by Dr. Alan Sussman of Gallaudet University. The taking of a perspective that accepts deafness as a difference in being human instead of only as an overshadowing disability is at the heart of his model. (Sussman, 1982) Sussman stresses the need for society to view individuals with disabilities as authentic human beings grouped one the basis of one characteristic.

Deaf and Blind

Vygotsky's work in defectology was continued by many others including Alexander Meshcheriakov in his work with individuals who are both deaf and blind. (Meshcheriakov, 1979) Meshcheriakov learned a great deal of his work from the "father" of Russian tiflosurdopedagogika, Ivan Sokolyansky (1889-1960). Sokolyansky was the educator of the internationally famous Olga Skorokhodva. Sokolyansky's school in Kharkov between 1930 and 1939 brought him into contact with Vygotsky and his fellow educators. Their ideas influenced his pedagogy and thus was handed down to Meshcheriakov. The famous school for students who are both deaf and blind in Zagorsk is a lasting tribute to their work. This school and their work is not very well known in the West but the BBC film Butterflies and Transformers has helped to disseminate information regarding the Russian advances in this area. Current literature research discovered only one article (Bakhurst & Padden, 1991) in addition to the little known English edition of Meshcheriakov's text on the school in Zagorsk. More work needs to be done in disseminating this example and others done by followers of Vygotskian theories.

Evidence of the applicability of Vygotsky's ideas, as incorporated by his followers, was further demonstrated in 1977 when four students who are both deaf and blind [Natalia Korneyeva (now Krylatova),Yuri Lerner, Sergei Sirotkin, and Alexander Surorov] from the school in Zagorsk graduated from Moscow University with degrees in psychology. While this occasion in and of itself is remarkable, Meshcheriakov's work has come under challenge in the past few years (Bakhurst and Padden, 1991). Their academic success and the psychological/educational pedagogy is something that the rest of the world can learn from and attempt to incorporate. The education and socialization of individuals who are both deaf and blind is in need of a great deal of attention and revision in most countries of the world. (Reiman, & Johnson, 1993).

Future Steps Down the Road Less Travelled

Vygotsky's theoretical writings are not outdated. There is still a great deal that we can learn from them and apply to today's world. However, it is our task to continue to build upon the legacy left us by this great man and his followers. Although the past few years have seen numerous technological and societal leaps towards an equally accessible society, we still have a great deal of work ahead of us. Among the steps still be to taken are:

* The need to uniformly define who are deaf-blind, deaf, hard of hearing, and deafened and to explore the psychological and social differences that are needed by such people.

* The defining of the role of the dominate language in the education of such individuals.

* The removal of numerous more societal barriers that are hindering the social and psychological health of those who are different from the majority

* The development of a systematic approach towards research and evaluation of educational and psychological methodology.

In closing, I would like to remind us of Vygotsky's challenge that we must "also pose the theoretical and practical question concerning their [radical changes involving polyglossia] co-ordination and structural composition at various stages of learning." (Vygotsky, 1993b).


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