Archive for February, 2008

This is Part Two in my continuing series of posts taken from an article in my files. I don’t know who is the original author of this article, but I think she does an excellent job of sharing what it means to raise a deaf child.

There was an amazing custody case in North Carolina in 1996 in which Sonya Kinney, a deaf 15-year-old girl, pleaded for the court to dissolve her father’s parental rights and give her guardianship instead to her sign language interpreter. Kinney’s father argued that although he didn’t sign, he loved his daughter-he knew how to get her attention by stomping on the floor, and he gave her money to go to the mall. While her father and siblings said that Sonya was included in family times, she saw it differently.

“If I have to live with them,” she signed in court, “I am alone all the time.” The remarkable thing about this case was that the judge agreed with the child. He ruled that her interpreter, Joanie Hughes, would be the better guardian because neither parent could “effectively and extensively communicate with Sonya without the assistance of others.” The legal community and the media were surprised that for this reason a judge had decided against the biological parents. But those of us raising deaf children were surprised only that a judge had gotten it right. For the first time ever, in a court of law, it was declared that a deaf child deserves to have more than a stomp on the floor and money to go to the mall. A deaf child-like any child-deserves to be understood.

There were five other deaf children Bekah’s age in our school system, and we considered ourselves lucky that the number was so high, and that all of the families were learning to sign. Here were other adults who could understand both my daughter’s language and my feelings. We formed a natural support group-people with whom I could talk about issues like the shock of finding ourselves in this situation, how to get the school system to meet our kids’ needs, and who else in our children’s lives we could ask to learn sign language.

My extended family lives across the country and sees my daughter only a couple of times a year. I never did ask them to learn to sign. My close friends, who see my daughter regularly, didn’t need to be asked. They helped me find a sign language teacher, and, one night a week for a year, 15 people came to our home to study. In addition, 10 of my son’s friends, second-graders at the time, came after school for weekly lessons. Nothing touched me more, that first year, than seeing nearly everyone who walked into our house give it a try. Nothing made me happier than watching my kids be able to have a conversation. “You only get one,” my 7-year-old son, Lev, could explain as his 2-year-old sister checked out the plate of cookies I’d put out for his sign language class. “My cookies,” she could argue, trying to correct Lev’s impression that she was supposed to share anything. “No way,” he could sign with one hand, slipping the plate out of her reach with the other.

But then Bekah’s language took off. My husband and son and I raced to keep up, but despite our friends’ good intentions, as Bekah became more fluent, it was difficult for them to communicate with her. Sign is a complex language, people have busy schedules, and now, a dozen years later, none of the adults is capable of much signed conversation with Bekah. One dear friend’s daughter, one niece who studied sign though she lived far away and one neighbor are fine signers, however, and given the opportunity to invite members of the community to join her to say a prayer at her bat mitzvah last year, Bekah, not surprisingly, chose these three young women.

Although Bekah loves many of her relatives who don’t sign, she misses the ability to have a conversation of depth, and so do they. Last year, another cousin and his wife moved to the area and they visit us often. “I wish I could sign,” he told Bekah one night after a dinner where, with me interpreting, everyone was involved in the conversation. Bekah shrugged. “You could if you wanted to,” she told him. “You could learn.” When, a few weeks later, he came over and knew the signed alphabet and a couple dozen words, Bekah nodded in approval. “Not bad,” she teased him, joyfully, as she corrected one of his signs.

Like most hearing parents of deaf children, we also made a serious attempt to teach Bekah to speak. To pick up any possible sounds, she wore two powerful hearing aids at home, and, in addition, at school she was wired into an FM system so the teacher’s voice would be amplified over background noises directly into the hearing aids. Bekah had speech therapy several times a week, and, to encourage lip reading, we always spoke as we signed. And she’s had moderate success in this area. Her speech is usually clear enough, for example, to tell a salesperson what she wants, and those of us close to her can understand a lot of what she says. But for any in-depth conversation, Bekah uses ASL, and people who want direct, meaningful communication with her do as well.

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