Andy Palmer: 10 situations when knowing sign language can help any deaf child (BSL)

Posted on July 18, 2014

Many severely or profoundly deaf kids these days wear cochlear implants or hearing aids.

Some parents, new to the experience of having deaf children and advised by audiologists and scientists, may think that sign language seems unnecessary and their focus wholly falls on listening skills and speech development.

But what happens when things don’t go to plan? Like when a hearing aid or cochlear implant is lost or broken down, batteries go flat, a child gets an ear infection, it begins to rain or when children simply won’t wear the equipment.

Things can go wrong at just the worst time, like the school assembly or a family holiday. This is where learning sign language, or at least some of it, can prove very useful, for any deaf child.

Here’s just a few common situations where knowing some sign language will prove useful – and one or two phrases you could learn.

To watch this article signed in BSL by Tessa Padden, courtesy of our supporter, Signworld (who provide BSL learning online), just click play below.

  1. Swimming

The NHS don’t provide waterproof hearing aids or cochlear implants so if you want to communicate in the pool, consider learning a few swimming signs.

Like: ‘Slide again?’ or ‘have you got the verruca cream?’

  1. Shopping

Shopping centres don’t provide the ideal listening conditions and shops can create a bit of distance as people wander round the store.

‘Time to go,’ or ‘want that?’ or ‘does my bum look big in this?’ could prove handy.

  1. Dining out

Restaurants often have the most appalling acoustic conditions.

Clanking plates and cutlery, background music, low rumble of other people’s conversations and softly spoken waitresses can make it an unhappy experience for people relying on hearing equipment – especially if everyone else is hearing and chatting away.

Knowing some sign to keep the kids involved in the conversation has proved essential to me in the past.

And, ‘Son, can you lend me a couple of pounds from your pocket money to pay the tip?’ can save a few pennies.

  1. Football

It rains when its cold and children sweat when they’re hot. Hearing devices are not ideally suited to sporting activity which means alternative methods of providing instruction are needed.

Sign language is perfect when weather and distance mean it becomes hard to hear. Football signs, in particular, are well developed and easy to learn.

They can also help managers of deaf teams to secretly convey instructions: ‘We need a goal. Do the special free kick move, Mike. Tell the lads.’

  1. Relaxing at home

It is often said that listening requires lots of concentration for deaf children. At the end of a long school day, some children want to remove their hearing devices as a form of relaxation. It’s like taking their boots off after a long walk – a relief.

Home signs like ‘change the channel’, ‘tea time’, or ‘After that 7-1 defeat, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has been proven correct for releasing David Luiz’, mean that home can be a place of relaxation for kids.

  1. At the implant centre

Often audiologists are not known for their excellence in being able to communicate with their patients once implants or hearing aids are removed.

The layout of the rooms often mean that audiologists backs are turned as they give instructions to kids or parents.

Signs like ‘wait’ or ‘hearing check’ or ‘hear that?’ alongside a few others like ‘hospital coffee tastes like burnt mud’ can smooth what is often a stressful time.

  1. Meeting other deaf children

The understanding and shared experiences deaf children share means a lot.

Allowing deaf children to learn sign language may enable them to talk to some of the most important people they will ever meet in their lives – other deaf kids. Ones who can best advise them on how to navigate a path through life in a hearing world.

Useful phrases, for many deaf children (but not my son of course!) could include ‘is your dad as annoying as mine is?’

  1. In the classroom

Fifteen and fifty sound very similar to some cochlear implant users. As do many other pairs of numbers. A quick flash of the hand and a number sign clears up confusion.

Classrooms are often acoustically poor environments, so finger spelling or signing misheard words is a classic and subtle tool to have at a child’s disposal and does not draw unwanted attention from class mates caused by louder and slower repetition by a teacher or assistant.

‘Maths is boring, isn’t it?’ could also be a phrase your kid might want to learn.

  1. Equipment breakdowns

From time to time, the hearing equipment that deaf children and the adults around them rely on so much, will fail. I speculate that it can be a comfort to a child to know, that in these circumstances, the people around them know how to handle it and will not become frustrated.

Sometimes, and I have seen it for myself, children can mistake failure of equipment to mean that their hearing has suddenly deteriorated or that surgery is required to fix a problem; both extremely worrying for young minds.

Application of basic sign language like, ‘don’t worry’, ‘I will call audiology’ or ‘what did it sound like before it broke down’ or ‘we’re going in about an hour,’ are just some examples of signs that could come in useful during these periods of stress.

Or even: ‘can I chuck my hearing aid into that rubbish bin, Mum?’

10. Illness

Headaches normally mean hearing aids or cochlear implants are not going to be in use.

Children sleeping at unusual times of the day due to illness means that they may not be using their hearing devices and at this time, sign language can help smooth communication.

‘Where does it hurt’, ‘hungry?’ or ‘no you can’t play on the xbox while off school’ have all been deployed in our house.

These are just some examples of where sign language comes in useful, even if deaf children have developed great speech and listening skills.

Parents of deaf children ought to be offered the chance to learn sign language as a valuable tool in family life. Part of a communication mix.

It’s foolish of medical professionals or educators to lead parents to assume that all the answers to communication with profoundly deaf children can be found in electronics. They can’t, or at least, not yet.

By Andy Palmer, Deputy Editor. 

Andy is Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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