There are many lessons to be learned when raising children and, unfortunately, kids don’t come with instruction manuals. If they did, at least half of us (men) would not read them anyway! Thousands of books have been written to inform and educate interested parents on proper and effective child rearing. We own several and have actually read some of them.
Consider The Facts
Considering deaf children, the challenges are even greater, yet the resources are scarce. This is a problem when you consider the fact that about 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born deaf or hard-of-hearing. Even more astounding is that 90% of children who are born deaf are born to parents who can hear. Imagine being a parent in America and giving birth to a child that is genetically Japanese. You would no doubt feel lost and maybe a bit hopeless trying to learn a new language to teach and communicate with your child and trying to learn your child’s native culture. This does not really happen, of course, but pondering this idea gives you a better understanding of what a hearing parent of a child born deaf must go through in order to successfully raise a child who can read, communicate, become independent and well integrated into our society.
Considering the fact that the average deaf person graduates high school with a 4th grade reading-comprehension level, demonstrates that this is a very real problem. Who is to blame for this? Is it the child? Is it the school system? Is it the doctors in the hospitals? Is it the parents? While all of these may be possible factors, I believe the biggest part of the problem is the parents. I don’t mean to sound condoning here, however, the simple fact is that hearing parents are never educated about Deaf Culture and American Sign Language when their deaf child is born. However, this is a part of the problem that you, as a parent of a deaf child, can directly impact to change this statistic before your child graduates high school.
What is it like to be DEAF?
This video shows a grown man who is recounting his experience growing up Deaf. It is quite an eye opener. He is using American Sign Language (ASL) but it is also captioned in English. It is very captivating as well. You will enjoy it and it will demonstrate the 5 valuable lessons we are going to discuss below.
Life is emotionally challenging enough even with all five senses intact. I don’t want my son to face additional emotional challenges simply because he cannot hear. Not if I can help it, anyway. I don’t want him to have to be dependent on someone else to know what is going on in the world and in his own life. These lessons, again, are not meant to be condoning to you as a parent. In fact, they are also great reminders to us as we struggle to continually implement them every day as well. The struggle is worth it though. The relationship that we have with our son is amazing. The smart, intelligent, independent young man that he is growing into makes it worth it.
5 Valuable Lessons for Parents of Deaf Children
1. Learn Sign Language and teach your child
Children begin the process of acquiring language as soon as they are born. Hearing children do not just one day (around 12 to 16 months) decide, “I want to start speaking today”. No, that first word that we cherish so much is 12 to 16 months in the making. They are constantly watching, listening, and practicing with their babble.
Deaf children are no different. They need to see sign language as much as possible from birth or as soon as you learn of their hearing loss. Sign language is their primary means of communication just as spoken English is for your hearing children. In order for them to produce that first word and, eventually, effectively communicate with others, it is vital that they are taught their language as soon as possible. You cannot wait until your child goes to school to let someone else teach them sign language.
The good news is that, in this age, learning sign language is so much easier than it use to be. There are not only books that anyone can buy or check out from your local library but there are fantastic DVDs (many of these also available free at your library), learn-at-your-own-pace websites (most completely free as well), apps for your phone and tablet, and lessons online from FSDB and other services. Check the resources page for links to many of these.
We began learning some “baby signs” before Michael was born. Once we discovered that he was deaf, we tried to learn more but did not know where to turn and we did not understand the importance of exposing him to sign language as much and as early as possible. He did not have consistent exposure to sign language at home until he was 2 years old. He missed a lot of early language development but we did as much as we could from that point forward. When he started at FSDB’s Early Learning Center last year, he definitely had some catching up to do but he is signing and communicating so much more now.
2. Use Sign Language in the home as much as possible
As your deaf child grows, they need to see and use sign language as much as possible to continuing growing their communication skills. Additionally, it is very important that they are included in your communications at home. As seen in the video above, when your deaf child is excluded from your day to day conversations, it is offensive. I can only imagine the emotional effect this has on kids. Using sign language at home makes your deaf child feel important and valuable. This is how they should feel, not excluded and unimportant.
Of course, this requires you to learn sign language and use it regularly at home. I understand that it may not be easy for you; it’ not easy for us either. I understand that you may not know a lot of sign language yet. That’s okay, using what you know is the best way to learn. However, in the rest of the hearing world, the deaf person is asked to accommodate themselves for so many situations. In their own home, this should not be the case. We should accommodate for them. If you had a child who could not walk and needed help up the stairs, you would probably not just tell them to go figure it out on their own, right? But that’s exactly what we do when we have conversations in the home without signing and including our deaf children.
We have not met any parents for whom this has been easy to do. It is quite challenging and we quite often forget ourselves. Even now, we are re-committing to using sign language regularly at home, whether Michael is present or not. Only by making regular practice of this will it become easier and, eventually become second nature.
3. Communicate with your deaf child as much as possible
Communication is so vitally important in day to day life. We take for granted how much communication is nonverbal, even for hearing children. A hearing child can hear the washing machine and know that you are doing the laundry. A hearing child can hear the dishwasher, the blender and the sink and know that you are working in the kitchen. We don’t generally think of these activities as communication; however, these are activities that your deaf child has no idea of because they cannot hear them. Turn these day to day activities into opportunities for communication and language development.
On several occasions, Michael has come into the kitchen when we are preparing a meal and he was upset. After communicating with him, we learn that he was upset because he wanted to help but didn’t know that we had started. Think about how much your child can learn about life and communication by just being involved in day to day activities.
4. Involve yourself and your child in the Deaf community as much as possible
This is extremely important for both you and your deaf child. Most parents of deaf children have no idea that the Deaf have a very rich culture and community all their own. Their language, culture and community are vitally important to them, just as your language, culture and community are important to you. The Deaf culture is your child’s culture so learn about it and involve yourself in it as much as possible. We heard this exact advice from so many Deaf adults as we became more involved in the Deaf community by attending Deaf events. When they learned that we are hearing and our child is Deaf, they were very accepting and constantly encouraged us to continue to get involved, get involved, get involved. Even now thinking about it, I can see in my mind so many Deaf hands signing “INVOLVED”.
How do you do this? If you live in Saint Augustine, FL, it is easy. Just simply attend as many events at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind as possible and begin developing relationships with Deaf parents and Deaf staff members. From the football games, basketball games, Dance Troupe performances, family reading nights at the library, classroom and school-wide events, there are many opportunities.
Follow FSDB’s website, and these Facebook pages for announcements. Even if you don’t live in Saint Augustine, these are great pages to follow.
Regardless of where you live, there are many opportunities to get involved.
There are “silent dinners” which you will come to learn are not silent and usually not dinners. These are generally gatherings of local Deaf people for communication and fellowship. As a parent of Deaf child, you will always be welcome. When we lived in Orlando, we regularly attended these. You can Google the term ‘silent diner’ and find people or websites listing them.
There are Deaf Expos showcasing products and services available for the Deaf. These expos also often include Deaf/ASL poetry and drama performances as well. These are always a big event for the Deaf community and you will find many opportunities to communicate, get involved and develop relationships with Deaf people. You can read here about one of Leanna’s fun, yet embarrassing, experiences at a Deaf expo we attended in Orlando.
Most churches also have Deaf ministries where you can learn sign language, meet other Deaf people, and get further involved.
If you make it a priority to look for them, there are many opportunities to get involved in the Deaf Community.
5. Always use closed captions on TV at home.
This is an extremely easy, yet often overlooked way to help your deaf child develop language and learn English. A hearing child learns English first by hearing it. A deaf child learns language first and always by seeing it. Visually exposing them to the English language, in addition to ASL, early on will help them gain language skills and help them greatly when they begin to learn English in school. (Many people do not realize that English is a second language for most deaf children.)
Additionally, once they do learn English, they will be excluded from family time around the television if they do not have captioning available. Turning on captioning allows them to be involved. Whether they learn to read lips or not, television programs are not created with the Deaf community in mind. Captions are essential for the deaf. Turn them on now!
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It is very important to make sure that you provide what your deaf child needs, even if you think its not important. Your deaf child is growing up in two worlds – the hearing world and the deaf world. They need both. They need to learn how to live in both worlds. Teach them sign language and they will grow up with the richness of both worlds. You will be amazed at how rich your own life has become as well.