Emily Howlett: Why is baby signing only seen as positive for hearing babies?

Posted on February 21, 2017

Right, you guys. I have been sitting on this one for a long time. So long, it’s practically welded to my bum. But I can’t ignore it any longer. The best we can hope for is to get through it without too many swears, and minimal loss of life.

What THE HELL is going on with baby sign classes?

No, seriously. I’m not even talking about the fact that any old random person can set themselves up as a ‘baby sign tutor’ and start relieving you of your money in return for waving their hands at your offspring and pretending it means ‘mamma’, when it actually means ‘toast’, ‘testicles’ or ‘what a wonderful and massive con this is’.

Those are their own special kind of nonsense. Forget them. Don’t give them your time, money or eyeballs. Move on.

Genuine baby sign classes, with knowledgeable tutors, whether based in BSL (which would always be my personal preference for ‘general’ signing classes, as it lays foundations to learn a whole new language) or Makaton (which is very useful as a non-verbal communication tool for learners with additional needs) – these are brilliant. My issue is not with the existence of these.

Well, only a little bit.

My outrage, which has built slowly over the last four years into just rage, is this – where are the classes for the deaf kids? Not just as babies, but for the whole of their young lives?

When a hearing family want their hearing baby to learn some sign language so that they can communicate earlier than their tiny speechless mouths would allow, it is seen as adorable. Forward-thinking. Progressive. Trendy, even. It is A Good And Proactive Thing Done By Good And Proactive Parents.

Great. Gold stars all round. No, really. Signing at an early age is proven to help development of all kinds of awesome and useful things like language, understanding, motor skills and relationships.

But why is this positive promotion of sign language reserved for the hearing? Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but isn’t the origin of sign language based in it being a visual form of communication for those who can’t hear spoken words? Namely, deaf people? And doesn’t this include deaf kids?

Because there is an awful, stark contrast to this adorable, hearing-babies-doing-signing and it is this; there is still no very little widespread support for d/Deaf children and young people to learn sign language. And yet the benefits to them are so much greater!

I’m not saying there’s zero support. But it’s few and far between, and very, very hard to find – especially if you are a hearing parent of a deaf child, negotiating this brave new world.

Whereas a generic baby sign class can be found in every town.

There’s probably even one on Mars, they’re so prolific at the moment.

And, yes, you could totally take a deaf child along. But then what? When they outgrow the baby signs, what options are there? You better get pretty good at Googling, and travelling, and fighting for opportunities…

From the other side of things, as a Deaf parent of a hearing child, I struggle to find any groups that my son can attend to help him with his signing. I don’t mean Deaf social clubs (which are also closing so fast that if you blink you miss them). I

mean places with structure and fun – places like baby sign, but for those who will be using the skills for the rest of their lives, not just until they can talk. Those who are often under pressure not to sign anyway, because it’s so often (wrongly) seen as lesser.

If signing as a baby is so socially acceptable and great, then why are we still campaigning to get BSL recognised at a level that means it could be a learned language option in school? As the quote goes, “Not everybody will go to France, but anybody can become deaf.”

It feels like the boom in baby signing popularity, which felt so hopeful at the start, is in danger of backfiring on us. It feels like it’s only acceptable while it benefits hearing people, while babies can’t speak. It feels like something to be dropped, once the better option of talking comes along.

And it isn’t. It’s so much more. It’s a lifeline, and it benefits everybody. So, why are we treating it like light entertainment? This is not soft play. It’s not tumble tots.

Emily Howlett is a regular writer for this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and teacher. Emily is co-director of PAD Productions and makes an awful lot of tea. And mess. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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