Wednesday, January 28, 2009

So, are you teaching him sign?

We get asked that a lot. It's a perfectly reasonable question, but I always feel a little uncomfortable responding to it. The answer is yes and no, and we've gone back and forth on it. How's that for equivocation?

When we first found out Ben was deaf, it seemed like a no-brainer -- of course we would learn ASL and teach it to him. After all, isn't that how deaf people communicate? And gosh, ASL looks so fascinating and beautiful, almost dance-like, when other people do it. It'll be fun to learn, right?

In fact, many people who gain at least some benefit from hearing aids or cochlear implants do end up using spoken language, either primarily or exclusively. It turns out that choosing a communication mode (sign, cuing, oral, or some combination of these) is a complicated and often controversial decision. It's certainly not a no-brainer. Like it or not, the world isn't currently set up to support those who rely on sign language. The vast majority of people on the planet don't know it and don't plan on learning it. None of our friends and family know much sign. And it turns out that it's not so easy to learn. You don't just wiggle your fingers in vague approximations of the objects or actions you're depicting. It's an entire language, with grammatical structure that is quite unlike any spoken or written language. While many signs are iconic, they are so abstract that you can't interpret them just by guessing.

Also, we started pursuing the cochlear implant option pretty early on, and more than one person in that camp gave us the unequivocal message that signing was frowned upon. We were told again and again that getting a CI was just the beginning of a long, hard journey of aural rehabilitation, that it would take years of intense therapy for him to learn to listen, understand, and speak intelligibly. The most popular form of therapy for this is AVT, or Auditory-Verbal Therapy. One of the tenets of AVT is that no visual communication of any sort is used, that in fact even lip-reading is discouraged; the therapist often hides his or her mouth with a screen while talking. The most dogmatic adherants claim that AVT is wholly incompatible with sign, even when it is introduced by the family outside of therapy.

The other side also has its passionate defenders. For many decades, deaf children were subjected to comparatively ineffective oral education practices, and often forbidden from using sign. This had a devastating effect on their educational outcomes, employment opportunities, and quality of life. During the latter part of the 20th Century, there was a resurgence of Deaf Pride and Deaf Culture, centered on a reclamation of sign as the natural language of the deaf. There is now a vibrant and diverse Deaf community. Many members of this community feel strongly that every deaf child should be taught ASL as a primary language, and some go so far as to assert that any expectation that deaf children can or should learn to talk is a manifestation of a form of bigotry called "audism" (I'm not making that up -- Google it). And I won't get into what they say about cochlear implants.

Those are the extremes, and you can imagine them spanning a continuum of more or less constant linear density. Amid all this brouhaha, parents of newly-diagnosed deaf children have to make some difficult decisions. The good news is that these days children thrive with a variety of communication modes, and also the decision doesn't have to be carved in stone.

We started off with the idea that we would teach Ben some signing as a support to his overall language development. At that point the wheels were in motion for getting a CI, but we didn't know for sure whether he would be a candidate, whether it would work, or how well he would do with it. Also, when we take off his equipment (for the bath or when he sleeps), he can't hear at all, and we figured that we would need sign at those times. In the run-up to implantation, we decided that we should "back off" from sign, at least for awhile after activation, in order to focus all of our and his attention on learning to listen and understand what he was hearing.

Within a few months after activation, it was becoming obvious that he was making extraordinary progress with hearing and language, including speech, even without all that intense therapy. Basically, he is back on track for typical language development. So now we're fairly relaxed about it all -- when he shows an interest, we introduce some more signs, and he takes to them pretty well. It doesn't seem to interfere at all with his oral communication. Quite the contrary -- when he pairs a sign with one of his more enigmatic utterances, we are able to identify it as an intentional word and help him refine it, and this has expanded his expressive vocabulary and reduced frustration. At the same time, we are now confident that he does not and probably will never actually need ASL. Now that the pressure's off, it is kind've fun to learn in bits and pieces. This early, casual exposure will probably make it easier for him to learn ASL as a complete formal language later if he ever wants to.


leahlefler said...

What a great post! Decisions on communication mode are so hard, especially when professionals pull you in various directions.

Ben is obviously thriving with what you're doing. He's ahead of his peers with typical hearing!

We're actually doing something similar to you- oral with bits and pieces of sign. We sometimes use a little sign at noisy restaurants, but for the most part Nolan responds to (and uses) spoken language. Nolan's also one of those that often makes a word approximation with a sign! Then again, we do have some articulation issues (note the lack of high frequency sounds in his words) so we are keeping an eye on that.

Connor's Mom said...

I think this is such a difficult decision to make-- great post! Sounds like you've gone for a balanced, well thought out solution.

In our case, we decided to use Signed Exact English with Connor. Our reasoning was that because it's not a separate language, it's much, MUCH easier to learn for us, and we're able to speak while signing. We use "auditory sandwiching;" we say a sentence, say and sign the sentence, and say the sentence again. This gives Connor a chance to hear the sentence, see whatever he missed, and then hear what those missed bits sound like.
In all actuality we end up with a total communication approach for Connor, though. He uses a combination of picture communication cards, eye-pointing, and Home signs (signs he has made up because his motor skills are too poor to do their SEE or ASL equivalent). I think end the end every child is different and the best thing you can do is look at their individual needs instead of going totally to one extreme or the other out of personal opinion.


Kel said...

I think that is a great response and a great way to do it! Honestly, the decision on what to do when your child is deaf is as unique as our kiddos themselves; there's a right answer for everyone and it's never the same as the next family. It sounds like Ben is doing great, and that's all that matters!

Julia said...

Hey, Leah, Jess, and Kel! Thanks for the comments. How's Danny recovering from surgery? We were originally doing SEE because I didn't know how well Ben would be able to hear grammar indicators like a final /s/ and I wanted to reinforce them visually. But it takes a lot of time to sign EVERYTHING -- "doing" became the bane of my existence. So we've eased up a bit, and now just sign the occasional noun or verb. (Leah, you had a term for that -- signing just a few important words. What did you call it?) Anyway, we're certainly not trying to do proper ASL grammar or word order either. Ben really likes the two Signing Time DVDs he got for Christmas.

leahlefler said...

I think I called it "keyword" signing- I stole that from some informational website somewhere. Cued speech holds an allure for me because of the ability to represent phonemes visually- I still wonder if Nolan is getting some of those high frequency sounds he isn't making. Darn those hard-to-pronounce consonants (I think /f/ /s/ /t/ et. al. are later developing sounds anyway).

Thankful Paul said...

Hello! :)

Lucas'Mommy said...

This is a really great post! I so agree... we really hope that Lucas will not NEED ASL to communicate, but that signing will be a fun activity, like with other hearing children. Just found your blog, love it!

Landry said...

Amen! You echoed our sentiments precisely. Thank you for putting into words what has been circulating in my head for so many months...