To Hearing Parents with Deaf Children
Nothing is more devastating than discovering there is something wrong with your child. For nine months you have planned and prepared. Not only have you picked out a name, you have been dreaming of your child’s future hobbies, successes, dreams, and goals. Maybe he’ll be an all-star basketball player? Or she’ll become the entrepreneur you wished you could be? What if he is a musical prodigy? What if she is going to be a star actress?
Whatever the dream is, it all seems to shatter when you receive the news.
Your child is deaf.
You wonder how this can be. Through the entire pregnancy, your child seemed perfectly healthy. There weren’t any deaf people in your family. How did this happen?
Grief likely overcomes you as you realize that your child is not like you- will never quite be like you. How will he ever play basketball, or she run a company? It appeared impossible for him to become a musical prodigy, or her to become an actress.
All of these tumultuous thoughts eventually boils down to one heart-wrenching question:
What do we do now?
Deafness in America
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately “2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears,” and “more than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.” This means that 9 out of 10 deaf children are born to people just like you, with no idea how to handle their deafness. You are not alone.
Worldwide, there are roughly 466 million people that have a disabling hearing loss, and 34 million of these are children. Surprisingly, this trend is going up in number, not down- it is estimated that by 2050, over 900 million people will have disabling hearing loss (who.int).
While 60 percent of hearing loss in children is said to be preventable, there are a myriad of causes and it is rare to pinpoint one specific reason for your child’s deafness. Genetics, environment, complications at birth, diseases, chronic ear infections, etc. can all play a part.
No matter the reason, you can not blame yourself for their circumstance. Whether or not you believe in God or a higher power, there is a reason beyond your own actions that your child is deaf. There is no way to reverse it. Think of it as an opportunity for you and your child to learn, and start your learning now.
Imagine you are back in high school. Your family recently moved to a foreign country with a very complicated language. Your parents both speak the foreign language fluently, and decide to inflict upon you a full immersion experience. You’re enrolled in the public school with no English accommodations, have hidden your English books, locked your phone into the foreign language, and only speak the foreign language at home.
At first you are excited. When you witness the new language, it is easy to tell the communication that is going on. You no nothing of the new language, other than it has a bunch of complicated noises and tonal qualities that are very hard to replicate. You can’t hear the subtle differences between those that are native and those learning.
The first day of school was hard. You were the only one that wasn’t native to the language. Kids that tried to talk with you ended up just making fun of you because of your lack of skill in the language. One of the teachers called on you in class, and laughed at you when you couldn’t answer their question.
You’re excited to go home, until you realize that you don’t have the ability to understand even your parents. You try to tell them about your day in English, but they cut you off, saying they cannot understand. They talk to each other in the foreign language, and eventually you stop trying to understand.
It doesn’t take you long to feel the isolation due to language barriers. You don’t have anyone, even your family, to communicate comfortably with.
Now before you go off on how mean these parents are for refusing to use English with their child, think about how this ties in to Deaf children.
As I stated earlier, over 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. The majority of these parents have had no experience with sign language or deaf people. This means that the vast majority of deaf children do not have the means to communicate with parents, siblings, or peers. In 1997, Marc Marschark (National Technical Institute for the Deaf) and Cristina Vaccari (University of Bologna, Italy) published a study researching the impacts on social-emotional development of communications between parents and Deaf children that you can read here.
In the study, Marschark and Vaccari compare three groups- hearing parents with hearing children, hearing parents with deaf children, and deaf parents with deaf children. They emphasize the importance of parental connection from a young age, and encourage sign language as the means for that.
Many parents worry that sign language will inhibit their child’s ability to learn English. In the article, Marschark states:
“…there is no evidence to support such a position… Certainly, in the many cases where parents learn only rudimentary sign language and use it only inconsistently, they are unlikely to see many benefits to their deaf children in either signed or spoken language domains… however, there has been no empirical research demonstrating that learning sign language as a first language impedes the learning of spoken language. In fact, deaf children who learn sign language as a first language generally have been shown to have better reading and writing skills than deaf children exposed only to spoken language.”
I highly recommend this article as it gives a much more in-depth analysis than I could ever do here. In the end, hearing parents have more work to put in in order to connect with their deaf child, and this extra effort can make all the difference in the child’s education, language development, and social-emotional development.
Learn Your Child’s Native Language
Before I began studying Communication Disorders with a focus in Audiology, I served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in a Deaf congregation in Anaheim, California. This is where I began learning American Sign Language, and where I fell in love with the Deaf community.
The differences in the Deaf individuals in this congregation were astounding. There were only a few that considered themselves educated. They graduated from high school, but from that group only one went on to college.
Troubling to me, the majority of this Deaf congregation had little to no education. There are a few that never learned English or American Sign Language and only communicated through gestures and noises. A significant portion of our time was simply teaching Deaf members American Sign Language and written English.
I have so much respect for these people. They have lived their entire lives with little to no communication, and are still able to learn and function. However, it breaks my heart that this preventable tragedy has occurred over and over again, affecting more people than it should.
I share these experiences not because I believe that the responsibility to teach Deaf children language falls completely on the parents, but I do believe that you get to play a key role.
You don’t have to be fluent in American Sign Language.
You don’t have to abandon English traditions and hearing culture.
But you do have to consistently be trying.
“A variety of studies have demonstrated that early intervention programs for deaf children and their hearing parents lead to more effective and “natural” social interactions and enhanced communication, particularly when sign language is a primary mode of communication… All of the available evidence indicates the success of such programs… for the development of healthy attachment patterns and later peer-peer and family relationships” (Vaccari, Marschark).
There is much more to say on the topic of Deaf education, but for now we will leave it with your own preparations. Find a local ASL class. Teach yourself online. See if you can find Deaf people and ask them what their childhood was like. What did they appreciate? What do they wish their parents did?
You Can Do It!
Much more importantly than persuading you on oral versus sign language, I want to assure you that your child has a bright future.
Just the fact that you are reading this now suggests that you are searching for what is truly in their best interest. You are willing to search for answers and to act on your best judgment.
Your child is lucky to have you.
There are going to be times where you feel inadequate. There will probably be times where you are inadequate. But know that you aren’t alone.
Hundreds to thousands have parents have gone through exactly what you’re going through now, and they’ve raised Deaf children that are living successful, fulfilling lives.
You can too.
The purpose of Live Deaf is to establish an online community where all people can come together to learn about the Deaf community and its present-day concerns. If you have any questions or wish for more information, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear about your own experiences too! If you’re interested in writing for us, contact that same email.