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Potential Maximisation: Social Ecologies

Social Ecologies are social networks. We are born into our first social ecology – our parents. Many of us have siblings and extended family too. Our Social Ecologies expand when we enter play group or kindergarten. It develops further when we enter school or playing with our neighbors. Our social circle increases and friendships can be developed when participating in extracurricular activities. 

During adolescence, and thereafter, it is our responsibility to find, sustain, and maintain our Social Ecologies. Some people do this more easily than do others. They might seem naturally gifted when using social skills. Yet, no one is born with social graces. Many people who are deaf learn and practice it painstakingly. Support and accommodations are therefore important for their inclusion, participation, and independence. 

I am currently writing the last chapter of my new book Potential Maximization. It includes famous people who lived with deafness. One is the inventor Thomas Edison who became deaf when he was 8 years old. He lasted 3 months at school. His mother home schooled him during the 1850s. His father taught his son the fundamentals of business and continued to support him during adulthood. Edison perfected the light globe, the telephone, and sound recording among other inventions. Edison was lucky to have such support.  

The movie star Marlee Matlin had an excellent teacher of the Deaf in the early 1970s - Dr. Scherer. This teacher taught unusual educational methods. At the time, Matlin says, children who are deaf were not encouraged to think for themselves. Unconventional for the times, Dr. Scherer had a vision that the student will become a fully functional adult. She was not blinded by the helper’s mentality that patronizingly views the student as a ‘poor little deaf kid’. Rather, she focused on loading up Matlin with life skills. While this might seem obvious, it is not common practice – even today. 

Mentors can play an important role in helping younger people who are deaf. Good career advice, including deafness-related tips, helps to maximise pursuits in which strengths become stronger. Pitfalls or weaknesses are also avoided. Mentor programs, whereby an adult mentor is matched with a child mentee of similar interests, are helpful. It is important that children who are deaf receive this support while at school. However, these mentors are mostly not qualified psychologists, educators or service providers.

I have asked many adults who are deaf to name their most important social needs. Their summarised answers are: 

  • A harmonious family life, 
  • Genuine friends and acquaintances,
  • Sufficient employment; and,
  • A rewarding romantic relationship. 

Each must be earned. People are hired because of the skills they possess; friendship cannot be forced; and, the strength of a romantic relationship depends much on our ability as a nurturer or provider, or both. Quality of life is achieved through the force of the individual’s personality. Deafness-specific life skills make this potential possible. This is why we need to teach them in the form of an educational program. Most teachers, parents, and mentors are not as informed as they could be. 

Part of the reason is we don’t want to hear the bad news. 

Bear with me for one paragraph. Living alone, social isolation, and unsatisfactory social participation have been linked with poor mental health in adults living with deafness1. Loneliness, exhaustion, lethargy, anxiety, apathy, despondence, social dissatisfaction, and severe self-doubting are common2. Problems include communication difficulties in group situations, understanding conversational nuances, and learned helplessness3. Social exclusion causes depression, which causes more alienation. Low social participation has been strongly linked with poor quality of life and ill-health4. Educational, social, employment and romantic prospects are severely compromised5.  

Do not dismiss this as ‘It happens to other people.’ Let’s work through this. Let’s ask the question:How has this come to be? The answer is simple: Children become adults. 

In June 2013, the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center in Washington D.C., released an important report. It defined the challenges experienced within the Social Ecologies of American students who are deaf6. Five barriers to potential maximisation were identified:

  • Professionals, caregivers, and the public lacked sufficient knowledge and education about children living with deafness,
  • Professionals, caregivers, and the public lacked sufficient collaboration,
  • Professionals and service providers were mostly unqualified, 
  • The school system lacked necessary accommodations for optimal instruction and participation; and,
  • Child self-development desired greater focus. 

Without adequate support, children who are deaf can become isolated within their own families or schools. With unmet needs, they can become ‘problem children’7. With limited understanding of deafness – let alone deafness-specific life skills – their families are dependent on experts to assist their parenting. Quality service provision is therefore vital. And it is not happening at the level that we Australians are capable of. 

As parents, teachers, service providers and academics, we are part of the Social Ecologies of thousands of Australian children living with deafness. It is our duty to help them maximise their potential. But, to do this, we must work harder. And we need to move forward past the old ways of thinking.

We think it is enough to provide parents with information about hearing technology or access to communication. This is an outdated way of thinking. We know this because research is telling us what is happening in the ‘real world’ away from the ivory towers and cosy offices of service providers. Statistics show that Australian children living with deafness are nine times more likely to be unemployed than a child without a disability. This is a serious problem. The focus is on advocacy. Don’t get me wrong: advocating your child’s needs is very important and must continue. But we need to start thinking about what our child will become as an adult. They need life skills. This is an absolute priority. 

“Perfect courage is to do without witnesses what one would be capable of doing with the world looking on” – François de La Rochefoucauld, Moral Maxims and Reflections.


  1. de Graff & Bijl (2002)
  2. Backenroth-Ohsako, Wennberg, & af Klinteberg (2003); Heydebrand et al. (2005); Steinberg, Sullivan, & Montoya (1999); Wheeler-Scruggs (2002)
  3. Heydebrand et al., (2005); Hyde, Punch, & Komesaroff (2010)
  4. Hawthorne & Hogan (2002); Heydebrand et al. (2005); Hogan et al. (2009b)
  5. Hawthorne & Hogan (2002); Harris & Bamford (2001)
  6. Retrieved 13 June, 2013 (no longer available)
  7. Fellinger et al. (2005)


The contents of these columns are copyright of Dr. Paul Jacobs (PhD). All rights reserved. Reproduction of all or any substantial part of the contents in any form is prohibited. No part of Dr Paul Jacobs' material on Potential Maximisation may be distributed or copied for any commercial purpose without expressed approval by the author.

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20-Apr-2022 12:04 PM (AEST)