Parenting Deaf and Hard of Hearing Kids: Choosing a Language (Part I)

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. The next few months we’ll be focusing on parents of deaf and hard of hearing kids. Last time we spoke about deaf kids was here: Diagnosis, Keeping Devices on Kids, Sports and Activities.

Over nine out of ten deaf and hard of hearing kids are born into hearing families with almost no connections to other deaf or hard of hearing people. Their parents have to quickly grasp the ins and outs of their child’s specific form of hearing loss while making decisions about how to communicate with their little one. Our aim here is to introduce you to different options, without claiming to have a blanket solution for all families.

Back to Basics: Communication vs. Language

If you’re a parent, you probably measure your child’s development against standard milestones. Communication and language skills are often a focal point: they help us understand our child and be understood by him. On a very practical level, it’s such a relief to go from guessing why he’s frustrated or ecstatic, to handing him the glass of water he’s asking for and sharing his joys.

Of course, parents of deaf and hard of hearing kids face the same practical need. But there’s also additional urgency for them. While parents of hearing kids know their child is constantly picking up language (even though they aren’t showing yet), parents of deaf and hard of hearing kids don’t know exactly what their child may or may not be picking up. “Kids are hardwired to learn a language, be it oral or visual,” says Joyce Lew, a speech-language therapist and certified auditory-verbal therapist, “but they need to be exposed to one.”

Babies only have a few years to gain solid understanding of language.

If deaf and hard of hearing kids aren’t exposed to an accessible language, they are at risk for language deprivation. In short, their brains aren’t learning what language is. They must acquire strong foundations in a first language during the critical early years. Those who don’t will have difficulty learning any language in the future, even non-oral languages because their brains haven’t yet formed the necessary connections. “While individual cases vary widely, the younger we see the kids, the more confident we are of the outcome,” says Joyce.  Thus parents have about 4 years to make sure their child is equipped to build a strong foundation in a first language, irrespective of which one they have learnt.

Different Viable Communications Methods

Here’s a brief overview of main communications methods used today.

Auditory-verbal or oral methods focus on using only residual hearing. Therefore children learn how to concentrate on the actual sounds with very little visual help. These methods typically work best for people who can hear across the speech spectrum, using hearing aids and/or cochlear implants.

Auditory-oral or cued speech methods teach children to combine listening with lipreading and visual cues. Cued speech provides additional visual elements for words that look the same on lips. For example, when speaking, hand gestures will specify the first letter of a word, like between “pat” and “bat”.

Manual communications modes include different forms of “sign language”. Many variations exist and some are not considered “languages” in their own right. The easiest way to understand is that Manual English (which includes SEE) is a literal transcription into signs, whereas other sign languages (like ASL for the US, Auslan for Australia, SGSL for Singapore etc) have their own grammar and internal logic.

Girls learning sign language.

Total communication methods allow for the use of all of the above methods in the acquisition of language. The underlying idea is to help kids pick up language with a combination of approaches, which may or may not include sign language, using cues, lipreading and maximising residual hearing.

How to Start Exploring and Choosing

Each case is different. As you explore, you’ll run into advocates of each type of method. Some will focus on making your child’s deafness as invisible as possible, others will want to open doors to Deaf culture and identity. Together they will complement the advice you’re getting from your doctors. How much residual hearing your child has and her prospects of learning sounds are important factors.

You’ll also take into account the community you live in – or want to live in. You need to know you’ll have enough support in your community to go forward with your choice. How much time and resources do you have to invest?  For example, if you are confident you can learn to sign and that your child will have a community of Deaf people to interact with, this will impact your choice.

We’ll be exploring experience from three interviewee’s in part II. Check it out here.

Additional Links

Looking for some of our sources? We used some of these links. Send us more by commenting below!

Disclaimer: these blog posts are intended as exploratory articles for parents of recently diagnosed children. They do not constitute medical advice and cannot replace a medical opinion.

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Mélie Aboul-Nasr

Mélie is an English and French language writer who has worked in consulting and social entrepreneurship. She helps Irisada develop relevant content for carers and customers.

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