When five-year-old Everett visited his new mainstream elementary school before he began kindergarten, he quickly spotted a colorful mural depicting a tiger with hearing technology.
The tiger, part of a mural with several unique animal characters painted by artist Bren Bataclan at Plains Elementary School in South Hadley, MA, is depicted with a cochlear implant. Notably, a tiger is also the town’s mascot.
“Some of the Plains Elementary School staff members requested I add hearing tech to one of the tigers to represent children who are deaf or hard of hearing,” says Bren, who has painted close to 300 school murals. “And inclusion is very important in my work. Representation is key!”
“Everett was excited to see there was a character wearing hearing assistive tech,” says his mother, Corinne. “Everett saw himself as clearly represented by the character in the mural and felt very happy.”
The mural, along with several other paintings, hanging art and multicultural flags, make the hallways more vibrant for the more than 300 students enrolled. Plains Elementary is one of four schools in the district which served 1,763 students last school year. Eighteen percent of students in the district were identified as having a disability and 47% were identified as having “high needs” during the 2021-2022 school year.
“We are an inclusive, trauma-sensitive school,” adds Carla Lussier, principal at Plains Elementary. “We focus on everything a little person could be going through, and make sure all our students feel accepted. For example, our teachers have SMART goals [Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound] for the academic year, which we have recently updated to SMARTIE goals, to include the adjectives Inclusive and Equitable. And we’re always seeking more ways to ensure all students feel welcome here, because that’s the only way they’ll bloom.”
Transitioning to Mainstream Spaces
Everett, who has bilateral sensorineural hearing loss and wears hearing aids, began receiving services at Clarke through the Birth to Three Program when he was just two months old, eventually enrolling in Clarke’s Preschool Program at age three, and graduating to his mainstream kindergarten by age five.
This transition to kindergarten is a major step for children and families. At Clarke, preparation for this momentous occasion begins in the Birth to Age Three Program, when young children are provided the early listening, speaking and pre-literacy skills needed to succeed alongside their peers with typical hearing.
But social-emotional competence, self-advocacy skills and self-confidence are just as important in making this transition a success. And when communities and inclusive learning settings seek to make students feel welcome, they’re more likely to thrive. Even with the comprehensive preparation provided for children and families prior to these transitions, the effect of representation in a mainstream setting is still incredibly affirming and buoying for students.
“Visual representation is critical for our students,” says Britt Coffey, Clarke’s mainstream services supervisor for Massachusetts. “When children who are deaf or hard of hearing have opportunities to see others like them—in aspirational roles, positions of respect (like a school mascot!) or just as real, whole individuals—they will be less likely to believe negative stereotypes they may encounter.”
But the impact extends much farther than that.
Authentic Representation Fosters Positive Attitudes
Equally important, students with typical hearing are exposed to imagery of an individual with hearing loss, which research indicates leads to positive attitudes toward disability. In a 2015 study of more than 1,800 students ages 7-16 in the UK, researchers found that participants “self-reported contact was observed to be associated with more positive attitudes towards disability.”
Families tend to agree.
“Having that kind of visual representation in a mainstream school environment not only helps children like Everett feel accepted as a part of the school community,” says Corinne, “but also helps to bring awareness amongst the rest of the students, parents and staff so it is not as much of a mystery when they come across a child wearing hearing assistive technology.”
Another Clarke parent, Wendy, shares a similar experience her son Caleb had at the same school while the mural was underway. Caleb is profoundly deaf in his right ear and uses a cochlear implant. “He was really proud… that the tiger would have the same color cochlear implants as he has,” says Wendy. “I think it is wonderful to have representation in the mural of so many different [characters] with so many different abilities and assistive devices to help them.”
Thriving at School
As a kindergartener, learning and playing with peers who have typical hearing, Everett works with a Clarke teacher of the deaf several times a week and receives support from a Clarke educational audiologist to ensure he is accessing high quality sound in all his classroom and learning settings. He loves imaginary play, pretending he’s Spiderman and being with his little sister Hadley. Caleb, now a second grader in a mainstream parochial school, works with a Clarke teacher of the deaf as well. His mother Wendy says he loves to read The Magic Treehouse series, and he wants to be an author and illustrator when he grows up.
What was it like seeing his red cochlear implant in the school’s mural? Caleb said, “It was so neat!”