Monday, April 08, 2013

Family Equals Family

On Sunday we had lunch in a Mexican restaurant not far from our hotel. We were seated and had ordered when a large extended family arrived. It was a cheery and welcoming place and the waitstaff pulled together to pull tables together so that all could be seated. I heard one of them say that there were four more people yet to come and the staff ensured that there were enough chairs at the table. They all chatted, clearly catching up with each other, they laughed, they poked fun at each other, they were, clearly, a loving family.

When the others arrived there was a complete shift, not in mood, not in spirit, not in noise level but suddenly they were all, ALL, signing. The family that arrived had two daughters. One was about 4 and the other maybe 7 or 8. The older child was excited to see the family and her signs flew so fast as to blur - an older woman, grandmotherly, signed while speaking asking her to slow down just a wee bit. They all laughed at the  exaggerated shrug the little girl gave.

Through the entire lunch, at least until we left, people spoke and signed both. The addition of the signing to the conversation seemed as natural as could be. The girls little sister wasn't far behind in her use of sign and she took to it as naturally as she did speech. This was a family to be reckoned with, this was a family who had no room for exclusion.

When the waitress came to take the order she went around the table, when she came to the child who as deaf she took her cue from all the others. She spoke right to the child, her father interpreted the child's order and that was that. It was a complete demonstration of what family could be and should be. Aunts and uncles, grandparents all, had bothered to learn a new way of communicating to ensure that a lovely little girl felt embraced by their love.

Inclusion begins, like everything else, at home.


Mark Pathak said...

Nothing brings people together like food!!!

Wish I had been there to witness it!!!

Anonymous said...

It's great to learn of a whole extended family that has learned to sign for their deaf family member. Many deaf children are lucky if even their parents and siblings learn to sign, and even luckier if they use it consistently enough to continue signing even during meal times. (In many mixed deaf/hearing families, meal times are frequently a time when even people who do sign stop signing because they are busy eating, or talking too rapidly with other hearing people at the table to remember deaf people being left behind, or because signing may mean they need to first put down their fork to free up their hand!) Families in which anyone other than parents/siblings learn a substantive amount of sign are rare. Sometimes this is simply because other relatives may not live close enough to see the deaf relative often and thus don't have much chance to practice. But sometimes there is a tendency to rely on signing relatives to do all the interpreting work without considering if there are other ways to make full communication access happen, such as non-signing relatives writing things down more often, or taking turns writing a running transcript of the conversation (necessarily abbreviated due to how much slower handwriting is than talking) so that the deaf relative is not dependent on any one person for providing all communication access.

I also find it interesting to note the waiter taking their cues from the family. I have noticed that it is easier to teach new hearing people to more fully embrace communication inclusive behaviors with me (such as writing down more often) if there is another hearing person there to model these behaviors for them. Trying to explain and encourage these behaviors verbally dosen't always seem to have the same impact on actual behavior as actually seeing others do what I've been asking them to do.

Andrea S.

wendy said...

I find this story so heartening. I have taken sign languages courses to the point that I can carry on a reasonable conversation with a deaf person who signs. One story I've heard more than once from deaf teachers is some variation on "No one in my family signs" or "My mothers signs pretty well but father never learned". It always bowled me over. I expressed surprise to one of the teachers saying, "If I had a deaf child I would want to be able to communicate with them!" He just shrugged.
I hope that this story is demonstrating a major shift in attitude such that having family that signs is the norm for deaf children rather than the exception!

Anonymous said...

Sadly, the trend these days, at least in the US, is going in the opposite direction. Many doctors push parents to do cochlear implants, and push them to NOT use sign with children. They claim that using sign inhibits speech and langauge development. Both of which research has consistently shown is INCORRECT, but most doctors are not really as enlightened as they ought to be about disability and also don't necessarily know much about linguistic development.

Many parents, not having access to more accurate information or a way to hear the input of deaf adults with lived experience, do what the doctors tell them. Many people also mistakenly think that the cochlear implant will remove the need for visual input as an aid to communication. This is also incorrect: although many people with cochlear implants do well with them, can talk on the phone with them etc, there are also many others who have less success. And even the people with the most stellar "success" stories frequently still have to work harder than most hearing people to follow a conversation, or a movie, etc., using sound alone. (A surprising number of people seem to assume that, just because THEY find it easy to understand and talk to the deaf person, that the deaf person necessarily finds it easy, too. Um, no. Maybe sometimes, for SOME deaf/hard of hearing people. But often not. They may be working very hard to make communication seem that easy to the hearing people around them.) So even for some of the very best speakers/ lipreaders or cochlear implant users, some form of visual input (either instead of, or supplemental to, auditory input) could free up so much of their energy for other things.

Andrea S.

John R. said...

thank you.....there are these wonderful reports from the world that do make me have hope and great anticipation for a world where everyone belongs, is respected AND eats tamales!!! thanks Dave!

Kristine said...

Andrea said, "Many parents, not having access to more accurate information or a way to hear the input of deaf adults with lived experience..."

I realize there are people in the world with limited access to resources... But come on, it's 2013, most people in developed countries have some access to the Internet! It amazes me when parents of kids with disabilities don't utilize that and other resources to reach out to adults with the same disability. I have SMA, and I frequently see parents of kids with SMA seeking out other parents of kids with SMA, but it's more rare to see them seeking out adults with SMA. I just feel like that would/should be a natural thing to do. Who could possibly have more insight? My parents can tell you what they did, but I can tell you what I wish they did. Just like if I were to have a child who was gay. I don't have firsthand experience there, so I'd definitely be seeking advice and experience from my gay friends and acquaintances. (Possibly also the parents of gay children, but that would be secondary.)

For the record, this is, by definition, not a criticism of ANY parent reading this. You're at this blog, which means you're seeking the inside story on disability, and methinks your child is all the better for it. :)

Belinda said...

I tried to imagine having a grandchild I couldn't communicate with and it's unimaginable--of course I would do anything to be able to connect. But then I thought of the many people with communication barriers supported by staff. I KNOW that some of us could do a much better job than we do of making it our business to be expert communicators in the language each person speaks. This post reminded me of that and the need to keep beating that drum.

wendy said...


How sad to hear that the trend is again moving away from the use of sign language. I've heard the stories of older deaf people who tell of a time when they were forbidden to use sign at deaf schools and would have their hands tied to their sides by teachers to prevent them from signing.

That tide seemed to turn somewhat and younger deaf teachers I've had report a more sign friendly experience.

I attended a sign language immersion camp for a week on two occassions and there met young, deaf people who wore hearing aids, or not, and who had learned to lip read and speak but who now craved the knowledge of a language that was natural and comfortable for a them.

So much politics about something so basic.

Anonymous said...

In the old days when every deaf school was an oral deaf school and no other school (certainly not public schools) even enrolled deaf students, even signing deaf children of signing deaf parents went to (oral) deaf schools. They had nowhere else to go to school! This meant they were around to help teach sign language to the deaf kids from hearing families at these schools. So at least the deaf children could have a way to communicate easily in the dorm or elsewhere behind teachers' backs, even if not allowed to sign where teachers could see them. (This meant deaf children from deaf families were often targeted for the harshest punishments because teachers knew they were the ones spreading the use of sign language).

But now that most deaf students are mainstreamed in public schools, and now that there are options for parents who want their deaf child to be in a signing deaf school, it is much easier to keep deaf children and young adults completely isolated from any in-person exposure to sign language. The oral deaf schools that still exist today in the US are now more likely to be truly non-signing environments because signing deaf children no longer attend them, they have other places to go. So in many ways, today's trend away from the use of sign language is more insidious and harmful, particularly for those who have more difficulty speaking or lipreading than others might realize. (I mentioned earlier how many hearing people have a tendency to assume that just because it is easy for THEM to communicate with a particular deaf person that the deaf person necessarily finds it easy also, which might sometimes but is frequently not the case.)

I do know some deaf people who grew up with no sign language who genuinely feel they were perfectly fine without it (some even say it was so positive for them they would raise a deaf child, if they had one, without sign language also). So I know oralism is not universally bad for all deaf people. But like you, I have known so many deaf people who are so angry and bitter about not having been exposed to sign language as children. And it saddens me to know that it is happening again--and even though many of them do now use cochlear implants, I doubt this is really enough by itself to make up the lack.

Andrea S.

Maggie said...

Delighted with the family you observed, Dave. And sad - and a little bit shocked, even - to hear that (hearing) doctors are still spreading nonsense to new parents about things they have no real knowledge about.

Meanwhile in the enlightened sections of the hearing community, a move is afoot to teach sign to people who are soon to be parents, so they can sign to their babies. Because research shows that babies as young as 6 months can sign, whereas their mouth parts can't coordinate to speak words for another year or more.

Some researchers have found that the 'terrible twos' are much less in children who have been exposed to signing from birth, possibly because they can communicate sooner and so suffer less frustration.