This is a post for hearing parents of deaf children, who have not learned to sign. I write this knowing that you love your children and that you try very hard to make the best decisions you can for your children. This is not a post to bash you for your choices, but to perhaps illustrate some possibilities through a simple scene: the dinner table.
Obviously, not every family is able to get together at the table for dinner, and some can but just don’t bother. I’m a big believer in the value of having family time at dinner to be with each other without distractions. We do this in my own household every night, with the exception of weekly movie night.
I’m going to paint two pictures for you. These are just two possibilities, which will purposefully be very stark in contrast. The reality is that families will have a wide range of differences in how they communicate, which would affect this scene, but I cannot describe every single one.
Picture, if you will, two households. In both houses, there is a deaf child, about 8 years old. In one house, Sophia is a child who has used American Sign Language since before she could talk. Her parents, both hearing, learned ASL shortly after learning that she was deaf. The father had taken one semester of ASL when he was young, thinking it would be an easy A, and promptly forgot nearly all of it when the class was finished. Although he had forgotten ASL, he remembered the value of the language and his teacher’s positivity. He remembered his teacher’s wit, her sharp mind, her full engagement with the hearing students. That alone was enough for him to tell his wife that it would be worthwhile, and important, to learn ASL for Sophia. At the same time, they stressed the importance of reading, and showered her with comic books and novels. They felt it was worthwhile for Sophia to learn to speak as well, but they didn’t make it a big focus during the school day.
Next door, there is Caleb. Caleb also signs, though his education has included more than a little speech therapy, which has taken him out of his class enough that he is slightly behind Sophia. Still, he is doing alright in school. Both Sophia and Caleb are fortunate enough to have a teacher that is fluent in ASL and understands their needs. His parents do not sign, because they strongly feel that Caleb needs to be able to communicate with the hearing world. While they somewhat understand the value of sign language, they prefer Caleb to build his lip-reading skills and use his cochlear implant at all times. When he takes off his behind-the-ears Cochlear Implant (CI) processor, they are upset. Caleb can communicate okay with his parents a fair amount of the time, but he has to ask them to repeat what they say. A lot. So much, in fact, that they get annoyed. Over time, Caleb has learned that it’s best to pretend to understand more than he does, so he will annoy them less.
It is evening. In both houses, these families are sitting down to dinner.
In Sophia’s house, they begin the meal by sharing about the best parts of their day. Sophia signs a story about something that happened at school, and her parents ask her questions in ASL. It is a funny story, one involving a missing dodgeball, and they all laugh. Sophia’s dad tells her about a big project he’s working on at work that has been challenging him. She is not familiar with what he is working on, a fundraising event that he is planning, so she asks questions. She feels comfortable asking him, because she knows he has the ability to answer her effortlessly and will not be bothered by her questions. Her mom had a better day, no stress at work at all, and shares a funny anecdote about a dog wandering into her office. Sophia’s eyes light up with the mention of the dog and she asks her mom to describe it, which her mom happily does. In ASL, the adjectives of small, brown, and cute are all emphasized, and Sophia smiles contentedly. They eat the rest of their meal, talking more about the day, about what plans they have coming up, and the house is full of laughter that does not need to be heard in order for it to have value.
Meanwhile, in Caleb’s house, he is sitting, fork in hand. He’s been enjoying his mac and cheese, which is his mom’s specialty. He smiles at the taste, tells his mom thanks for making it, and she says he’s welcome. He understood that, but he has no idea what his parents are in the middle of talking about. They have been conversing now for the last ten minutes about something, he thinks he caught a mention of a project but he’s not sure. His CI processor is turned on, as always, since his parents expect that of him, but what he hears is not really making sense. He can hear them, for sure, but it might as well be Shakespearan English that he’s listening to. His parents laugh, his mother playfully pokes his father in the shoulder, and his father smiles as he takes a bite of his own food and shrugs. Caleb smiles as well, because he likes to see his parents happy, even if he knows nothing about what they’re saying. He has not learned anything from this dinnertime, but he doesn’t usually, so he does not think anything of it. His dad asks him a question, and at first utterance, Caleb doesn’t know what his dad said, so he asks for a repeat. His dad repeats the question, a little slower and a little more clearly enunciated, and Caleb catches: Better brush teeth, bed soon. He nods, and his dad smiles again. Caleb clears his plate and leaves the room to brush and ready himself for bed. He is not unhappy, and is in fact mostly fine, but there is a subtle quietness in his heart that he doesn’t completely understand. He can’t identify it yet.
In each of these houses, at each table, there is a deaf child who is with loving parents. In both cases, the parents want the best for their children. They want a life full of possibilities, but they have different ideas of how that is to be achieved. In each house there are similarities. Both Caleb and Sophia speak, though perhaps Caleb speaks a little more clearly than she does. But in Sophia’s case, she is getting more educational minutes on other subjects, so she is doing better in school.
When we look deeper into the benefits of the conversations that Sophia has with her parents, we see that the opportunities for learning simply skyrocket. At every turn, she is able to learn. With every conversation, there is a chance she will be presented with information that is new to her. Even in situations where she might have misbehaved and must face the angry signing of an angry parent, she will see the words illustrated in sign language and know how to improve. She will not face an anger that cannot be deciphered, for in these moments, lip-reading and striving to understand with hearing aids can become an impossibility.
In each family, there is love. I have no doubt about that. Yet in Sophia’s family, where communication has not been placed upon a shaky foundation of technology and sometimes insurmountable expectations, Sophia is thriving. In her family, communication is placed on the foundation of language itself, the most easily accessible one for her: American Sign Language.
I am not asking you to stop speech therapy for your deaf child, nor am I saying that you need to toss the CI processor or the hearing aids away. I am not trying to convince you to abandon these choices. Whether the speech therapy or the hearing devices are proving beneficial is not the point. Whether your child is one of the rare exceptional lip-readers is not the point. What I am asking you, on behalf of these children, is to make sign language the foundation.
ASL can work beautifully with any language, really. It’s a myth that learning ASL will hinder the development of written or spoken language. Those that spread this myth are motivated either by fear of losing money or losing authority. The deaf community does not have this fear. We are, believe it or not, on your side. Because we know that if you really understand that we’re on your side, trying to help you create a more open world for your deaf children, that you will be our allies. We will work together to make this world one that is not limited by the perceptions of others.
We will, both you and the deaf community, remind people that deaf people are not limited by being deaf, but by hearing people (and sometimes, sadly, by deaf people who have bought into the myths of our inabilities) who choose to limit us. You do not need to be one to limit us, to limit your own child, but instead you can choose to be someone who obliterates those limits.
Can you let yourself consider these words, imagine these scenarios, and ask yourself if you are willing to give this a wholehearted try? I hope the answer is yes.