The other day I was introduced to someone and as is usually the case, mentioned early on that I was deaf. His response was, “Oh, you use sign language.” “No,” I said, “I speak!” He was rather taken aback and indicated that surely I was taught how to sign in school. I told him no, I went to a regular school and didn’t pick up any signs for years. Now I know the signs for Merry Christmas, Happy Easter, thank you and sorry, but that’s about it.
This encounter got me thinking about the different ways those of us with hearing loss communicate. If you are unfamiliar with this topic, here is some background.
There are basically three types of communication approaches that are taught to children with hearing loss: verbal (and that can include speech reading or lip reading as well as listening for auditory cues); sign language (in Canada, American Sign Language is used but there are other versions in other countries); and Total Communication, which is a combination of speech and sign.
The communication approach you are taught as a deaf child depends on many factors including current educational thinking, whether you were prelingually deaf (generally deaf before the age of one) or became deaf later in life, the severity of your hearing loss, your family situation and the availability of therapy services in your community.
I first learned about the controversy surrounding communication approaches back in the mid-eighties when I volunteered to sit on the board of a charity providing services to deaf individuals. This organization referred to those of us with hearing loss as either Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, depending on the severity of the loss and the type of communication we used.
I learned that those advocating sign language don’t always agree with those advocating speech, particularly where children are concerned. Often there are severe camps that attack each other.
In my own case, I was four years old when I lost my hearing and five when the diagnosis was finally confirmed. As the youngest of three children in a family that also included three adults, I learned spoken language very early and by the time I was four was reading books, so it seemed a natural decision for me to attend a regular school.
The educational authorities however, wanted to send me to the school for the deaf where I would learn a combination of sign language and speech and be with other children who were also deaf. At the time, the only specialized school was a three-hour drive away. My parents decided that there would be no way they would send their five-year-old to boarding school and put up a fight to have me enrolled in a regular school, two blocks from our home. I’m very glad they did, but when I tell this story to those who use sign language exclusively, they think I am criticizing them.
I am truly not.
Over the years I have thought a lot about why the feelings regarding this issue are so intense. Parents of deaf children want to communicate with their child and many fear that they won’t be able to do so unless their child learns spoken language. Adults using sign language often had to cope with less than ideal communication situations during their school years and when they discovered sign language, a whole new world opened up for them. Anything that threatens this world, including deaf children who receive cochlear implants, is very scary.
I have always believed that communication in all its forms is a life force. We cannot do without it. Imagine how crucial it must be for those with hearing loss to find ways to communicate with others. Anything we can do to make it easier, whether it is providing a variety of communication options for children, continuing to develop better technical tools for those using speech or simply honouring the communication approach chosen, would be a good thing!