There are many benefits of music, theater, art, and dance education for all. Arts education is linked to improved focus and behavior, academic achievement, higher SAT scores, and a host of other benefits. The positive cognitive, creative, physical, social effects are undeniable. But what about arts education for children with hearing loss?
Don’t listen to the nay-sayers. The arts are especially good for children with hearing loss. Participating in the fine arts can help children who are deaf or hard of hearing develop breath control, rhythm, melody, intonation patterns, learn new vocabulary, build relationships with peers, gain confidence, and enjoy a creative outlet for self-expression.
What challenges might a child with hearing loss face when participating in the arts? First of all, keep in mind that some people with typical hearing are tone deaf or not coordinated or not musically talented. Just because the child has hearing loss doesn’t mean that he might not have these skills OR that he definitely doesn’t have these skills. Just like with typically-hearing people, it varies. (See also: is this a hearing loss thing or a kid thing?)
Some specific concerns for children with hearing loss include the fact that hearing devices were developed primarily for hearing speech. While modern hearing aids and cochlear implant processors boast of their enhanced music appreciation abilities and special programming algorithms, at the end of the day, speech is the most important auditory signal and the #1 purpose for which these devices were designed. Music is a more complex signal than speech, too. Think about it: in a conversation, the “rule” is that one person talks at a time (consider the difficulties some listeners have in noisy, big group conversations). In music, it’s the exact opposite: multiple instruments are playing, each doing their own thing. When they combine, the result can be a beautiful symphony — but it’s also a lot of auditory input!
But research and experience show that there is great potential for people with hearing loss in the arts. Cochlear implant users can learn to hear, appreciate, and produce music, and there are many famous artists, actors, and musicians who are deaf or hard of hearing. (For more on the research behind music perception for people with hearing loss, check out the great work being done by the CI Music Research Lab at the University of Iowa.)
If you are thinking about enrolling your child with hearing loss in music lessons, a dance, class, or summer theatre camp, what should you consider?
To tell or not to tell… Should you inform the dance studio, rec center, theatre troupe, etc. that your child is deaf before enrolling him or her? I think it depends. If your child has significant communication delays or needs that will affect how she participates in the class or what the instructor needs to do to accommodate her, it’s best to be up front and work through any modifications and accommodations before the class begins. If your child’s speech, language, and listening abilities are on par and all that’s required is for the instructor to wear an FM transmitter, disclosure before the session starts is less important. If you are worried that telling the instructor that your child has hearing loss will mean your child can’t participate in the class, don’t! In the US at least, federal law (The Americans with Disabilities Act) prohibits discrimination or barring access to public services based on disability status.
Experienced vs. open… Some parents look for a music or art teacher who has experience working with children who are deaf or hard of hearing, but these people are pretty rare. And who knows what their experience really is? Are they used to working with children who sign, or seniors who are hard of hearing? Those experiences don’t really translate to the needs and realities of a listening, speaking deaf child from an AV family. Where an experienced teacher isn’t available, look instead for someone who is open. Someone who says, “I’ve never even seen a cochlear implant, but I’m eager to learn. I’m willing to try some new things, to adjust my teaching style, to make accommodations. I’m read!” This kind of attitude is almost more important than prior knowledge about hearing loss. It will take you a long way.
What is your goal? Are you enrolling your child in these lessons for enjoyment? To gain some new skills? To make friends? To become a professional pianist/actor/artist? Why is your child interested in this activity and what does he hope to gain? If you are clear about your objectives, then you can choose the classes and activities that best fit your child’s needs, at an appropriate level for him.
What should I tell the teacher? First and foremost, help the instructors see your child as a child. Hearing loss is only as big a deal as you make it. Beyond that, provide a few simple communication pointers (e.g. repeat back questions other children ask, repeat directions if she appears not to be following you, minimize noise) and information about any accommodations or assistive technology (preferential seating, how to use the FM). Give the teacher your contact information so that you can help with troubleshooting and stay up to date with how your child is doing in class.
Equipment considerations… You may need to think about retention devices to help keep your child’s hearing equipment secure for dance classes (there are many options out there — ear huggies, clips, caps, headbands, earmolds, etc.). Who will wear the FM transmitter and how will it be passed around, if necessary? How can you head off some issues with room acoustics before they begin? For example, can your child stand in the position closest to the teacher when working at the barre in ballet class? Can he stand away from the music speakers during acting warm-ups?
How you can help your child at home? Just as pre-teaching and post-teaching of academic content helps children with hearing loss succeed in the mainstream, you can pre- and post-teach to help your child succeed in arts activities as well. Some thing that might help include: videotaping the dance routines for home practice, listening to the music at home with lyrics to help your child learn to sing along, and, of course, serving as a proud audience member for all of your child’s at-home performances!
Choosing instruments… While a child with hearing loss should choose whichever instrument appeals to her, there are some instruments that are easier than others for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. True-tone instruments (piano, percussion) where what you hit is what you get are easier than tone-matching instruments (violin, trumpet) which require the musician to match pitches by ear, for people with hearing loss.
What about choir? There’s a reason why people make jokes about bad singers being tone deaf, right? Well, I say why not? Why shouldn’t your child with hearing loss participate in choir. If the goal is for enjoyment, to make friendships and gain new skills, not to become a professional vocalist, and the child can blend in relatively well (not singing so loud or out-of-tune that it causes embarrassment for the child), there’s no reason for a child with hearing loss to be excluded.
Talk to your audiologist and your AVT… Have your child bring in her instrument to the next mapping appointment. Make notes about what sounds good and what doesn’t, what the child is able to hear/differentiate and what he can’t, and get programmed accordingly. Collaborate with your AVT to discuss strategies for learning song lyrics, new vocabulary, or practicing lines for the school play.
Want to help your child experience the arts? Apply for the AG Bell Arts and Sciences Scholarship.