by Bridgetta Bourne-Firl
Supervisor of Outreach
Promoting sign language as a way for hearing parents to communicate with hearing babies is a hot trend across the country. The Gymboree Learning Program, a national franchise that offers classes for children, has begun teaching sign language in their infant-parent classes. Private lessons, DVDs, and even a PBS television show called “Signing Time” demonstrates the increased interest from hearing parents of hearing children to communicate with their children at younger ages.
Despite this trend, many medical professionals continue to advise hearing parents of deaf children to teach their child to speak and hear without much regard for the child’s overall language development. The language and emotional development for deaf children is a meaningful and beneficial experience when parents contribute on the home front. Disregarding the advice of these medical professionals, many hearing parents from various walks of life have chosen to use sign language at home. Some send children to schools where there is a critical mass of deaf peers and successful deaf adult role models.
Family life at home
Family life at home can be disastrous if clear and effective communication is not used. A Spanish-speaking mother explained through an American Sign Language (ASL)/spoken Spanish interpreter that she could not communicate with her own 7-year-old deaf daughter. The daughter had been going to a self-contained classroom one hour from home, although she lives only a few miles from a state school for the deaf. At home, the child was emotional and behaved terribly. She would have tantrums when she was not understood. On one occasion, she even hit her mother in the face. Finally and surprisingly, her pediatrician recommended that the family learn sign language to communicate with their daughter. After meeting successful deaf adults at the recent CAL-ED/IMPACT (Independently Merging Parent Associations of California) Conference, the mother was determined to learn ASL. She realized that the best gift she could give her daughter was to sign with her at home.There are often many resources that help; parents who wish to communicate better with their children at deaf agencies, centers, and schools for the deaf. For example, at the California School for the Deaf, Fremont, Ginny Malzkuhn, the school’s Family Education Coordinator, explained, “To enhance family communication, we offer free American Sign Language classes to families with deaf children, including a class for siblings. This is the key to the development of deaf children’s academic and social skills.
Parents who choose ASL usually face challenges, but felt their choice was the best for their deaf children. These parents range from attorneys to rabbis to teachers to strawberry field workers. Barbara Raimondo, a hearing mother in Maryland who works with the American Society for Deaf Children, chose to use ASL with her two deaf children when they were very young. She enrolled them at the Maryland School for the Deaf because she wanted them to be fluent with their language and have complete communication access to all parts of their school day. Raimondo said, “I wanted them to have a variety of appropriate language models so that they can learn language as naturally as possible. ASL is completely accessible to them. I have always made sure they have opportunities to learn spoken language as well.
Barbara Matusky explained that her deaf children “forced me out of my sheltered and comfortable world of spoken English into a world of ASL that has become just as comfortable. My children began learning language with oralism and total communication. I was just not satisfied with those approaches.” Matusky continues, “My children were put in classes with students with serious medical conditions or in classes to be left alone to follow what the other 30 kids were doing.” This led to her decision to change from oralism to simultaneous communication. Once the family began signing, Matusky felt that keeping her children in non-signing environment did not make sense. So, she eventually chose to enroll them at the Maryland School for the deaf. At the same time, she decided to sign up for ASL immersion courses at a community college. She admits that she still uses mostly signed English at home and the children use ASL at school. Currently, her son Nick and her daughter Brittany attend California State University, at Northridge. Both of her children graduated from the California School for the Deaf, in Fremont.
Cheryl Cohen, mother of Marissa, a successful 22-year-old deaf woman, recalled the early days with her daughter: “We wanted to be able to communicate as quickly as possible with Marissa and for her to be able to do the same with us. We thought that if and when she was going to ‘speak’ she needed to have something to speak about. It made the most sense to begin with ASL since she could not hear spoken language.”
Raquel Camerena, remembers when she first found out that her daughter was deaf, “I cried a lot. I thought there was no future for her and that she would be stuck with me for the rest of her life. She would never have friends, get married, or go to school. It was very hard in the beginning. I even put my daughter on the cochlear implant list with the hopes that the device would save her. Then, I read an article and realized that I was being unfair. She was deaf and I was trying to make her like me: hearing. I then became determined to be a part of her world so I learned her language: ASL.” Now, Raquel’s daughter is a happy 13-year-old who attends the California School for the Deaf, in Fremont (CSD). Arriving at the decision to send Raquel’s daughter to the CSD was another challenge. “I struggled with the idea of sending her to a faraway school. In Hispanic culture, it is not acceptable to let kids leave the family circle. However, I decided that the deaf school was the best place for her and that allowed me to let her go. There, she has improved academically and socially!” she explained. Raquel’s daughter is not out of the family circle; she attends the residential school during the week then comes home on the weekends and stays at home during the summer.
Dr. Steve Tijang and Annette Ng used Signed Exact English (SEE) at home with their profoundly deaf daughter who went to a public school between 12-24 months of age. But they were not convinced that the public school system would work for their bright daughter, so they began visiting various programs, including oral, SEE, and the deaf school. Annette explained, “CSD at Fremont was the natural placement for our daughter to acquire language through ASL as well as having full communication access to everything in her environment.” She saw how Deaf students at the school naturally absorbed ASL and were still fluent at reading and writing in English. Annette wanted her daughter to experience the same success.
Parents will always be parents
Despite efforts to educate Deaf children at the school, parents remain the most important influence on their children. Should parents be left on their own to find the best way to provide their children with full access to language, to develop cognitively and emotionally into a whole child? Sweden has an excellent system in place for parents. By law, all Swedish parents of Deaf children are given opportunities to learn Swedish Sign Language. They are also connected with Deaf adult role models. As a result, Swedish Deaf students pass high school exit exams with scores equivalent to their hearing peers.
To meet the language needs of deaf infants, a national strategic plan must be formulated to reach out to pediatricians, audiologists, and parents about the benefits of using American Sign Language (ASL) and providing access to a critical mass of Deaf peers and role models. Until we create such a system, Deaf children, and the Deaf Community as a whole, will continue to suffer. A movement needs to take place in the United States so that Deaf children are not left behind.
Bridgetta Bourne-Firl coordinates Outreach Programs at the California School for the Deaf and has three children. She taught American Sign Language to hearing parents for years and is currently the chair of the school’s Community Advisory Council.
Reprinted with permission of the National Association of the Deaf www.nad.org