Breaking Ground 96 - Deaf Children, Hearing Parents, One World

by Lesley Guilaran, Council Member for Southwest TN Development District, Council on Developmental Disabilities

I distinctly remember feeling the sense that someone was following me one day when I was with my boys in the local craft store picking up art supplies. I noticed that there was a man and woman who were, indeed, following us. Of course, this made me quite nervous and I had us make our way to the main aisle of the store.  At one point, I turned around and the man and woman were standing right next to me. Suddenly they began signing to me and I quickly realized what was happening - they had seen me signing to my kids and wanted to come say, “Hello!” 

The first question they asked me was, “Are you Deaf?”  I explained to her that I am not actually Deaf, just a hearing mom who was determined to learn her boys’ language. I was honored by the ask, and the shock of joy on their face at finding out I was hearing and chose to learn sign language for my boys brought actual tears to their eyes. They were so kind in communicating with our family and never batted an eye that our boys had cochlear implants. They told me that as children, their parents never learned to speak their language - American Sign Language (ASL). They were thrilled that my husband and I had made the choice to do so. 

This scene has played out more than once with our family and honestly, I still brace myself when it happens, waiting for the negative comments about my boys and their Deaf identity in regards to their cochlear implants, because cochlear implants are so controversial. But that has never actually happened to me. Each interaction has been kind and a true gift each time.

Our family was uniquely built through the miracle of adoption. Our oldest son came to us at age four with only the diagnosis of a vision loss. However, we quickly realized that he was not hearing us. After many doctor appointments, we learned that he was indeed profoundly Deaf. After two years in a pre-school where the teacher was fluent in ASL and with parents who signed at home, our son was still not communicating. He was diagnosed with autism and we understood then that the road might be a long one in order for him to learn to communicate. 

Eventually, he received a cochlear implant when he was seven years old. We know the decision to obtain cochlear implants is divisive within the Deaf community because it is sometimes viewed as trying to remove the Deaf identity of the Deaf individual. The decision for our family was not made lightly and we truly spent a great deal of time taking in all the different viewpoints and perspectives. However, we found that we were unique in our decision making because speech for our children was never our goal. The goal was always ASL acquisition.  

In our experience, we have found that most hearing parents don’t understand how important it is to learn to sign with their Deaf children. Learning sign language feels overwhelming to people at times, but it is so worth it for both the children and the parents. Amazingly, for our oldest son, the sign language connections began to come after receiving his implant. Somehow hearing us speak and seeing the signs made a connection in his mind and he began to communicate in sign language. It still took him a few years to learn to have conversations, but the point is that he can! 

I have talked to several parents of Deaf children who also have autism, and they have found the same connection to be true. Our brains are a truly unique and amazing organ in our body system.

Both of our sons are Deaf and they attended our local Deaf school when they were younger. The school was just for lower elementary school students, so currently our sons attend hearing schools and have sign language interpreters with them all day. Our youngest transitioned to a hearing school when he was in the third grade and has even taught a sign language class to his peers several days each week. We are pursuing Deaf mentors for both our boys and have been teaching them with a special curriculum that helps to bridge ASL and written English. We read aloud (and sign) books and watch videos of Deaf people and the remarkable things they accomplish. We are also starting to add Deaf art to our home which displays the beauty of sign language using vivid colors and drawings to illustrate and convey the meaning of words in ASL.

As hearing parents, we have tried hard to do the best we can to foster Deaf pride, to help our children understand that their Deafness is a beautiful thing because that is how they were created. Sign language is a way for us to enter into their world instead of always trying to make them fit into the hearing world. When hearing parents choose to learn their child’s language, it can be one way to show love to their Deaf children. It helps to communicate that their language and identity is important and that they are not broken in any way; that they were uniquely created. We are by no mean experts in this area, just two hearing people trying to understand and love their children the best way we know how. 

We are thankful for the Deaf people and hearing people who know sign language in our lives who have helped and guided us. If you have access to a sign language class in your community, I highly recommend you learn. It is a beautiful world to enter and you won’t regret it!