Who Will Sign With My Deaf Child?

 

The first day of preschool, Leah was fearless. I was not.

  • I wanted Leah to be safe.
  • I wanted Leah to fit in.
  • I wanted Leah to enjoy the journey and discover things that she’s passionate about.
  • Mostly, I wanted it to go well.

I was aware of how differently Leah was viewed in our neighborhood and community. As parents, we didn’t view deafness as a disability, it was a communication issue, she just “spoke” a different language. I never expected to give birth to someone who had a different native language than I, but it happens. That’s deafness.

First Day of Preschool – Leah Coleman, age 3 – 1999

Leah waited for the bus and I wondered if I was a bad parent, allowing my deaf three-year-old to ride a Los Angeles School District bus. I was able to set those fears aside knowing that her preschool experience was more important than most.

Leah was going to preschool, specifically to exist within, and experience the least restrictive language environment. While she was not aware of it as she boarded the bus, she was going to a place where her native language would be modeled for her in a way that was not anything we were able to duplicate at home.

Leah’s preschool teacher, Jodie was deaf. In Leah’s IEP we requested “full access to her native language, American Sign Language.” Once the documents were signed, I asked the team if they realized that what they had just signed would require two fluent signers in Leah’s classroom. (They had not realized that.)

I explained that having one fluent singer in the class was an incomplete language model for the deaf students. Much like the “sound” of one hand clapping. (There is no sound.) The children needed two signers to have the opportunity to “overhear” conversations. Two signers provide access to the much needed incidental language which is required to fully understand, and naturally acquire their first language, a visual language, American Sign Language.

The district employees were not happy with this news. No matter. We knew that their standard educational offering for deaf children was lacking in many ways. They promised (statistically) that Leah would graduate from their high school with a third grade reading level… So, when looking at preschools for our deaf child, we also looked at the 3rd grade classrooms and the 6th grade classrooms. We wanted to see what the future held for our child in their educational environment in the years ahead.

As a preschooler, Leah’s language was already on par with each school’s deaf third grade class of students. We knew we couldn’t put our three-year-old in a class with eight-year-olds. So began a lifetime of trying to find an appropriate educational setting, as well as appropriate peers for our deaf child.

“Why do you want ASL? No one else is demanding ASL.” That’s what the district rep asked in one of our meetings. We were “demanding” ASL because:

  1. ASL is a full and complete language.
  2. ASL is a visual language.
  3. Our child is deaf.

This was clear and simple to us, but the district representatives were stumped by this logic.

We tried to help them understand, “Leah can’t hear. Because she can’t hear, it’s unlikely her first language will be a listened to, spoken language. We don’t want Leah to learn to pronounce some words in English. Having the ability to say some words isn’t the same as understanding the English Language. Saying some words is not English and it’s not language.”

Then they asked, “If Leah learns American Sign Language, who is going to sign with her?”

We didn’t have a good answer.

They were trying to say that American Sign Language would only isolate Leah.

Leah was born to hearing parents, as are 92% of deaf children. As hearing parents, we lived, socialized and operated within a hearing community.

“Who is going to sign with Leah Coleman?”

The question went unanswered. The documents were already signed.

To meet the conditions in her IEP, Leah was assigned a one-on-one aide who was deaf. Since Leah’s teacher was deaf, she had two fluent signers in the classroom! We believed that this model would not only benefit our child, but it would benefit every child in that preschool class.

2018 – Leah is now age 21. My feelings that surrounded Leah’s first day of preschool and most recently, the first day of Leah’s senior year of college, are surprisingly similar.

Leah is still fearless. I am still not.

  • I want Leah to be safe.
  • I want Leah to fit in.
  • I want Leah to enjoy the journey and discover things that she’s passionate about.
  • I still want it to go well.

Leah is one of 2000 deaf students who attend the National Technical School for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Leah chose this college over our local colleges specifically to exist within, and experience the least restrictive language environment while in college. 

Senior Year of College – Leah Coleman, age 21 (w/CCI Hearing Dog – Robin, age 3) – 2018

The campus, dorms, and classrooms are set up for deaf students. Deaf students have access, no matter their communication method and no matter the technological tools they choose to use, or choose not to use, as the case may be. In Leah’s dorm, the doorbell makes a light flash. In Leah’s classes, interpreters, live captioning, and downloadable notes are provided. There are mental health professionals on campus who sign! <– so hard to find.

Freshman year, Leah’s cochlear implant was lost – L O S T – the insurance replacement process took months, but because Leah has access to more than one language and doesn’t have to rely on the CI, and the school provides access for deaf students who sign, speak, or cue… losing her implant caused no problem! 

College has also provided something we were unable to provide our deaf child. Leah has developed a strong deaf identity. Leah’s ASL skills have reached new levels. Leah has been immersed in a community of signing and non-signing peers and has made lasting friendships and memories and experiences.

Leah is a Resident Assistant (RA) again this year and in that position, Leah helps new students feel welcome and safe at their new home away from home. Sometimes I wonder if our house now feels like Leah’s home away from home. That doesn’t even make me sad. It makes me happy. If Leah feels at home, in many different environments, to me that’s a win!

I’ve been thinking back to the days just prior to preschool. Back when we had no way of knowing where our journey would take us. All we had was a belief that with ASL we were making the best possible choice for our child. Sometimes, that’s all you’ve got, belief and hope.

But, if I could go back in time, I’d rewind to the question that I was unable to answer in 1999, “If Leah learns American Sign Language, who is going to sign with her?”

This time, I would stand up with the confidence, and the knowledge, and all of the experience I now have, and I would answer with certainty…

“Hundreds of thousands of people around the world will sign with Leah Coleman. Within just a few years… many more parents will find the courage to sign with their own deaf children because today we are ‘demanding’ that Leah have full access to American Sign Language.

Today doesn’t only impact Leah and nine other students in one preschool class… today we begin down a path that can alter the world.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

That’s who will sign with Leah Coleman.”

 

 

This entry was posted in Crazy Little Thing Called Life, Strong Enough and tagged , , , , , , , , , , by Rachel Coleman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Rachel Coleman

The opinions and late night musings published on this blog are Rachel de Azevedo Coleman's alone, and are not ever intended to represent the opinions and sentiments of any organization or product that Rachel is, was, or will be associated with. Rachel Coleman is the creator and Emmy-nominated host of Signing Time!, the children's American Sign Language vocabulary building series. She is also the creator and host of Baby Signing Time, Rachel & the TreeSchoolers, and Rachel & Me. Rachel now serves as the Executive Director of the American Society for Deaf Children, a 501c3 nonprofit established in 1967 by parents of deaf children. ASDC is the American Sign Language organization for families who are raising deaf children. www.deafchildren.org Motivated by her child, Leah's deafness, Rachel has spent the last 18 years creating ASL products to help bridge the communication barrier between hearing and signing communities. In 2006 Rachel founded the Signing Time Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to putting communication in the hands of all children of all abilities. In 2014, the Signing Time Foundation launched a 50-Lesson online ASL curriculum called "Sign It: ASL Made Easy" that is available free-of-charge to families with deaf or hard of hearing children ages 36 months and under. Apply at www.mydeafchild.org. For those who do not qualify to receive Sign It ASL for free, they can find it for purchase at very reasonable rates on www.SignItASL.com. Rachel and her husband, Aaron, live in Salt Lake City Utah. They are parents to Leah who was born profoundly deaf, and is now a senior in college at NTID/RIT in Rochester, NY. They are also parents to Lucy who has spina bifida and cerebral palsy, and recently graduated high school. In 2010 the Colemans were joyfully reunited with Rachel's daughter Laura. Rachel is proud to be Laura's birth mom. Laura was placed for adoption as an infant in 1992 when Rachel was 17 years-old.

4 thoughts on “Who Will Sign With My Deaf Child?

  1. I loved this story!
    Much the same as my daughter decided that when her daughter, Jordyn, got her first cochlear at age 3 and was told that Jordyn needed to be emmersed in spoken English classes and to stop signing, my daughter in her wisdom, told the Doctors and Specialists that she was grateful for the opportunity the cochlear would provide Jordyn, however, that Jordyn was a deaf child who’s first language was ASL and she would be using both to enhance her language skills.
    The Specialists told is they had hoped that Jordyn would be able to hear people in the same room and get to a middle school level of education by her senior year. Jordyn received her second cochlear when she was thirteen and continued to go to both State of Alaska School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing school within a school and mainstreaming to other schools and classes with her interpreters. Jordyn was an eager student and excelled well past any early limitations her mother was initially given.
    Jordyn Faith Cleveland graduated this past spring Magna Cum Laud with a Seal of Biliteracy because of her mother’s belief in her and advocacy with the doctors and schools.
    Jordyn is now going to college, using ASL and interpreters. Her ability to hear and communicate is enhanced by the cochlears, not just because of them. Jordyn may very well decide to go to a school like your daughter that would afford her the most integrated educational experience in the future.

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  2. Beautiful post! I recently wrote a post on my blog about being an Educational Sign Language Interpreter. One of the most heartbreaking things I experience in my job is that most of our parents do not bother to learn sign language to communicate with their child at home. Our students come to school on Monday starving for communication. I could weep.

    [Reply]

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