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Parents of Deaf Children and Sign Language

As a hearing person, with hearing able parents, I have always taken the open communication that we enjoy for granted. When it comes to sharing simple instructions, requests, divulging something in confidence, debating – even arguing (!), I have never experienced language barriers which frustrate these efforts.

Most readers of this article, will fortunately be in the same position and may never have been in the position where they have experienced communication issues with their parents.

Spare a thought therefore, for the many Deaf children who have been born of hearing parents who have refused to learn to sign. Most parents value the early communication discourse that they have with their children and they hold forever close to their heart, all the utterances of their child during their early years as communication started to become established.

For many Deaf children however, life has been very different. The 1970’s saw a direct drive aimed at the parents and teachers of Deaf children which suggested that sign language prevented their children from being able to participate fully in broader society. It was argued that a child’s success could only be guaranteed through the equipping of the child with verbal speech. Many parents therefore, who wanted the best for their child adhered to this ill founded advice and prevented their children from using sign language in the home. Children were also prevented from using sign language in the classroom.

Even though evidence subsequently emerged which definitively demonstrated the need for sign language as a means to expression, healthy development and learning, some parents of the old school persisted with the non acceptance of sign language as a means to communication. As such, some children grew up with parents who were unable to communicate with them in a meaningful way. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these individuals have grown up with considerable resentment.

As a young girl, one of my closest friends was Deaf. Although we were young at the time, my mother still remembers me coming home and angrily telling her that my friend was forbidden from using sign language in the presence of her father. Her mother and sister were both fluent in signing and during the absence of her father, normal family relations and communications would pursue. However, as soon as he entered the home, my friend was unable to join in family dialogue and would sit at the family table during meals trying to grapple with what was being said. As such, she was secluded from family life. Reflecting on this as an adult, I can only image the exclusion that my friend must have felt. We have now lost contact but I dearly hope that the abundance of evidence in favour of sign language as a means to engagement and communication has won him over. His resistance to the use of sign language was almost certainly due to his drive to do what was best for his daughter and the drive during the period in which my friend was growing up coincided with the era of ‘oralism’.

Thankfully Deaf children are now growing up in a period where sign language is embraced and where hearing parents are encouraged to learn it. They are no longer made to feel guilty for failing their sign language using Deaf children.

by Nikki Johnson

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