Voice and Signing Programs: Closing the Communication Barriers between the Deaf and Hearing Communities
While waiting at the clinic for the audiologist to call them in, my sister sits on the floor of the play area, helping her four-year-old son solve a puzzle. He holds up the pieces. She smiles at him and signs the colors of the corresponding piece while she slowly says the color, attempting to teach him how to voice the words. He makes a small muted noise and goes back to playing with the puzzle, ignoring any further teaching attempts. Meanwhile, another small child has begun approaching them, but his mother holds him back.
“Don’t play with the deaf kid,” she tells him quietly, making a sympathetic face at them. My sister has stopped viewing her son’s deafness as a disability that will hold him back, and the ignorance of this woman angers her. She sighs because she is conflicted. She was told by her former speech therapist that he would never learn how to voice, but her audiologist insists that he still has hope. She has been scolded by Deaf parents for trying too hard to make her son be hearing. Unfortunately, this type of judgment is a common occurrence for hearing parents of Deaf children.
When my sister’s son was born, her attitude about deafness was completely different. She had never been introduced to the Deaf community before. When she found out her son was deaf a few weeks after he was born, she cried. No one told her that around 12,000 children are born deaf in the United States each year, with more than 92% of them born to two hearing parents. From the beginning, like any other mother, all she had wanted was the best for him. She had not been sure how to overcome this new, unexpected obstacle. Her doctor had even told her it wasn’t too late to give her son up for adoption. Many mothers chose that route, and no one would judge her for it. She was shocked. Her son had been living with her for weeks now, he was a part of their family, and she couldn’t imagine giving him up. Instead, she decided to look for better options to brighter her son’s future.
After many talks with her doctor and a lot of her own research on the Internet, she decided to get her son cochlear implants. The decision was a risky one considering that the insertion of the electrodes was going to destroy any hearing he had left, and no one could guarantee that the procedure would be successful. After making sure her son qualified for the surgery, he was given bilateral cochlear implants. The Deaf community received her decision to choose cochlear implants over hearing aids in a negative fashion. Many deaf parents thought she removed her son from the Deaf community and forced him into the hearing world. Several children with hearing parents learn to voice, or use vocal English, rather than learn sign language and use that as their main language. In their eyes, a mother could not make a worse choice. Nevertheless, my sister felt she was choosing the best option for her child.
Still, while she opened up more opportunities for her son in the future, she never thought about what he lost by gaining hearing. Kids growing up with cochlear implants don’t really fit in with the rest of the world. They can hear, but not the way hearing children can, yet they’re also not completely deaf. Children with cochlear implants often come from hearing homes and make up the majority of the main group that learns how to voice. Their parents often don’t know sign language, and this delays them in building a language foundation. Hearing children usually develop language and basic conversational skills before the age of three, but the majority of deaf children don’t sign fluently until they’re in middle school. This lack of a language foundation hinders them in learning how to read and write properly. Lacking these skills holds them back from learning other things successfully, like science or math. However, the majority of children with hearing loss who receive appropriate attention and services from well-trained staff can learn at an age-level rate. Those who don’t receive the proper help usually graduate from high school at a third to fifth grade reading level. They fall behind during their elementary school years and never get caught up.
Solutions do exist. Deaf and hard-of-hearing programs like Stratton Elementary School’s in Colorado Springs benefit children in the deaf community whether they have gotten cochlear implants or not. Programs like this can help strengthen their language foundation at a younger age and teach them to voice at the same time they learn to sign. This can help them, as well as the hearing children, to become used to living and cooperating with each other from an earlier age. These programs allow for full participation from all deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing children. Because of this, Deaf students can be a part of the hearing world without having to leave the deaf community behind.
Deafness for the most part affects only one generation, meaning the majority of deaf kids have two hearing parents who have never been introduced to the deaf community and have no idea how to raise a Deaf child. They receive little to no help, and they’re left to raise their children with the few resources they have. Having no experience with the deaf community, they struggle to find good audiologists or speech therapists, and they often underestimate their children’s abilities. These first-time parents allow their kids to “play the deaf-card” and get away with things that they shouldn’t rather than disciplining them. When they decide to send their kids to a mainstream school, the teachers usually do the same thing. They allow them to yell and disrupt classes with little to no punishment. Some parents don’t ever learn the basics of sing language, and they send their kids to live full time at a deaf school on their own. These children then hardly get any exposure to the hearing world.
Because of this, the deaf and the hearing communities do not always know how to coexist with each other. In the hearing world, people are often confused about deafness. They often pity the deaf because of their disability and let them get away with behavior they would not have otherwise gotten away with. There are always inspirational videos floating around of Deaf people “hearing” for the first time, but no one ever looks for the whole story — the factors that went into making the decision to get cochlear implants, whether the insurance covered the expensive surgery, or how well the person adapted to the hearing world. They view the Deaf person as someone who needs to be fixed. Conversely, the Deaf grow up in a completely different world, where they often look down on the hearing people for making these kinds of assumptions. A language barrier also exists between people in the workplace since English and American Sign Language have major grammatical differences, which means Deaf and hearing people sometimes have trouble understanding each other’s sentence structures. This can cause many communication errors and misunderstandings. Many parents of Deaf children worry that if they do send their children to mainstream schools, the hearing kids will bully their children, and this will lead to different problems than the ones at the deaf schools.
Teaching students how to sign and voice at the same time from an early age can close the communication barrier between the hearing and the deaf and help deaf children transition to mainstream schools later on in life or have better opportunities within the Deaf schools. A program like the one in Stratton Elementary benefits the deaf community greatly. Children learn how to read and write along with their hearing counterparts. This ensures that they will have better chances of improving in the future. They learn at the grade level and receive the proper amount of preparation for further education.