“What does it mean for my child to be deaf?”
I first asked this question in 1998. My 14 month-old had been diagnosed with a “severe to profound hearing loss,” and I previously had very limited interactions with individuals who were deaf.
I saw a Deaf woman come through the airport handing out pencils with a card attached. The card showed the manual alphabet. It asked for a donation if I kept the pencil and card. I wondered if that’swhat it means to be deaf? Will my child be asking strangers for handouts?
Growing up, I went to church with a family who had a deaf child. I called them and asked, “What does it mean for my child to be deaf?” The mother told me, “it is a wonderful, unexpected journey that will introduce you to new people and new experiences. You will learn a new language and learn about a different culture.” I thought, “That doesn’t sound limiting and scary. That sounds bigger than what we would have had.”
An early intervention worker came to our home. I asked her, “What does it mean for my child to be deaf?” She told me, “Statistically it means your child will graduate from high school with a third grade reading level.” I thought, “Not being able to hear has nothing to do with a child’s capacity to learn and their ability to read.” I was correct.
When I asked a Deaf adult the question, they said, “It means your child’s first language will be a visual language, like American Sign Language. Once you have a first language, you can use it to learn a second language, like English.” I was surprised that being deaf meant you could be bilingual.
Each week, parents struggling to imagine their own deaf baby’s future contact me. They ask a familiar question.
“What does it mean to be deaf?” is a “crystal ball” question. Parents are asking for a glimpse into their child’s future. They want to know that it will be ok.
I tell parents that deafness is not inherently disabling, but language deprivation is.
I tell them their deaf child has their whole life to learn how to pronounce words correctly in a multitude of languages, but there is only a limited window of time in which they need to acquire their first language.
My advice is always; Sign. Sign. Sign.
Don’t discriminate between deaf children and hearing children. All children benefit from early communication.
If a child can access visual communication – give it to them. If a child can access auditory information – give it to them. If a child can access both – give them both. Give all children all of the tools then look to see what works for the child. Let your child be your guide.