In A Prison Times Three

By Jean F. Andrews

While some children learn to read effortlessly and on their own, I had to wait until the first grade. After my teacher taught me the 26 letters of the alphabet with the sounds they make, and taught me 20 to 30 sight words, she handed me a primer, my first book. Before my very eyes, the magic of story unfolded. I lurched forward through the talk to print connections, put it all together, until it made sense, I was on my way. Reading took me to worlds far and wide, real and imagined. And I have not put a book down since.

My ease in learning to read is not so with most deaf and hard of hearing children.

Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison - Global Giving
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison – Global Giving

For them it is a lifelong struggle to access visual language–both signed and written. The struggle begins at home in a sound-base environment and continues to school, another sound-based setting and if they have scrapes with the law, it continues into still another sound- based setting, the prison.

My colleague, who organized a book club for hearing inmates in our town’s prison, says his book club is transforming minds. Inmates read books and get together with him to discuss ideas from the novels and share their own experiences about situations and characters they read about. Not a bad way to spend their time while they are doing time.

But if you are deaf, it’s a different story.

The 3 Weird Sisters from Macbeth.
The 3 Weird Sisters from Macbeth.

Most deaf inmates can’t read beyond the second grade level. It would be impossible for deaf inmates who are illiterate to get into the biography of Malcolm X or To Kill A Mockingbird or Macbeth or read Robert Frost’s poetry. My colleague’s prison book club has created a shared humanity, an oxymoron in such an incapacitating and punitive setting as the prison.

While deaf inmates reading levels are lower than the average reading level of most deaf high school leavers which is 3rd to 4th grade, still deaf non-offenders have information sources around them through the Internet, YouTube, VRS, their signing deaf and hearing friends, signing hearing friends, Deaf sports, and Deaf associations and ASL/English bilingual e-books.

Alex Dixon - Flickr
Alex Dixon – Flickr

Not so, for deaf inmates.

Deaf inmates live in cells without books or signing companions. Not only are they locked up physically; they are locked within the prison of illiteracy and within the prison without signers. It is prison times three.

What a terrible, excruciating lonely and cruel existence.

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

7 thoughts on “In A Prison Times Three

  1. I had a terrible time learning to read and write. I don’t know that it had a thing to do with being Hard of Hearing (HoH) though. Later in life I was diagnosed with dyslexia – I’m not sure anyone had heard of it in 1955. Certainly not the nuns who taught first and second grade, nor even my public school teacher in 3rd grade. In fact, I also had dyscalculia and ADHD – also not diagnosed until much, much later in life.

    It was my mother who figured out my upside down, backwards, inside out, out of order writing required help. She had gone to Normals School (teacher’s school) but had to quit after the Great Depression hit. She was the one who hit on having me solve very simple crossword puzzles to teach me the order of letters in words. I have to memorize words. To this day I cannot sound words out – phonics was lost on me, even when my hearing was much better. My written vocabulary far exceeds my ability to vocalize since I’m not 100% sure as to pronunciation.

    When I was a kid I thought it was “cowwebs” rather than “cobwebs” and I kept watching cows looking for webbing activity for years. Of course, it was the usual thing of thinking the pledge of allegiance was “invisible” rather than “indivisible.” I also can’t figure out what the pronunciation guide in the dictionary means in terms of what noise to make.

    There is also the issue which came up at the conference on mental health and the deaf which David and I attended this year. According to the psychiatrist from the UK, almost uniformly the individuals in the deaf community who had the most problems – be it with language or other skills – were children of mothers who either had poor prenatal nutrition, care, etc. and the reason the child was deaf was not a genetic malfunction or an injury, but because of a disease process, malnutrition process, etc. These individuals often are deficient in ASL – even if exposed at an early age – as well as English. So those individuals appear to have more problems than just being deaf – being deaf may exacerbate it or if they were fully hearing we might consider them to be intellectually impaired.

    In the experience of the forensic psychiatrist from the UK (whose name escapes me at this moment), most of the deaf in prison in the UK who have limited English or BSL skills suffer from some sort of organic brain damage. So not only are these individuals seriously hard of hearing or deaf, they are also afflicted regarding cognition – which makes them even more vulnerable.

    I agree that we need to provide all possible opportunities for children who are deaf, deafblind, or blind – or any other child, for that matter. However, in some cases, the inability to learn language may be coupled with ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia or organic brain damage. We cannot look just to hearing loss as the only factor. I wish we could. It would make it so much easier to address!


    1. You have raised many interesting points! Let me try to address 2.
      1. deaf children with ASL still may have reading difficulties.
      Yes, if hearing children have speech and language disorders (about 3% of the population), then deaf children may have sign language disorders due to genetics, poor memory skills, poor parenting etc. This is a new area that is recently studied by language pathologists–that of sign language pathology.

      2. issue…those children who are deaf and who have other disabilities such as dyslexia, learning disabilties etc. These children have challenges in school. Many will never learn to read even with the best teaching and language access.


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