Elizabeth Engelman: 13 Reasons to sign to your hard of hearing or cochlear implanted child

Posted on May 27, 2017



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When we implanted our profoundly deaf two-year-old son Micah with cochlear implants, we gave little thought to American Sign Language or Deaf Culture.

We were a hearing family, following the council of our audiologists, and under enormous pressure, we made the best decision we could with the information we had at the time.

Micah received the $50,000 bilateral implant surgery and the $18,000 implants. He participated in expensive speech, auditory and oral therapies, but despite our time, efforts, and financial investment, he hated hearing.

Sound was like an itchy sweater he refused to wear. He fought us tooth and nail, literally biting and kicking until he and I were both in tears. As you can guess, he made few speech gains.

Believing the implants would help him develop language, we had put all of our eggs in one basket, and by age five, Micah had a significant language delay.

As you can imagine, his inability to communicate resulted in frustration and major behavior problems. Outings to the grocery store or park ended in violent tantrums, so much so, that I felt like I couldn’t leave the house. At the time, it seemed our family was a sinking ship. I was overwhelmed, disappointed and confused.

I think the turning point for me was after someone suggested I watch a documentary called Through Deaf Eyes. There, I learned for the first time that deafness was more than a physical condition. Deafness is a community. With the magnetic force of a tribe, it is about people and a history steeped in civil rights.

But most of all, it is about a unique, visual, three-dimensional language called Sign Language. As I watched the film, I realized being a part of the deaf community was a privilege, and I wanted my son to be proud of this heritage. While he has Puerto Rican, Jewish, and English ethnic ties, he also was bound to the deaf community by language.

In this post-modern age where people feel disenfranchised, disconnected, and alone, I saw the benefit of being born into automatic community, and at that point, I had a choice: embrace his deafness and all of its language and cultural implications, or reject it.

For my family, we chose to learn American Sign Language, and that was the key to transforming our relationship with our son. Cochlear Implant cheerleaders, please don’t misunderstand. Micah wears his implants to this day.

While his speech is unintelligible for the most part, there are moments of clarity, and in those moments, my heart does a little leap. We continue to encourage his implants, hoping they will help him with phonics and communication with hearing people; however, American Sign Language was and is our lifeline. Our saving grace.

I have a hard of hearing daughter, and she too has learned American Sign Language. Not only does she communicate in sign with her brother, but she has deaf friends, participates in deaf programs, and has the benefit of navigating easily between two words.

For all these reasons and more, I wanted to share eleven reasons for signing with your hard of hearing and cochlear implanted children.

  1. Cochlear implants do not replace normal hearing. There are no guarantees that your child will attain spoken language acquisition. No matter how much time and effort you invest.
  2. There is a critical window for language development. If a child is not fluent in a language by the age of five, he or she may never attain full fluency in any language. Having a foundational language is crucial to the development of future language. Why wait until it’s too late?
  3. Sign Language comes naturally to deaf children. By signing to your deaf child or exposing them to fluent signers, you are ensuring language acquisition and avoiding language delays. If your goal is speech, that’s fine. Sign will not get in the way.
  4. Introducing two languages does not interfere with the acquisition of either language. Consider children of immigrants: they are often bilingual, juggling between two languages, and according to PhD. Marc Marschark of NTID, all deaf children should be bilingual.
  5. Sign Language enhances the development of spoken language and literacy. 
  6. Knowing sign does not impede a deaf child’s academic success; if anything, it helps them establish a healthy foundation to build upon. According to research from NTID, “Children who sign early on generally outperform those who do not sign during their early school years.”
  7. Hearing children learn a second language, and this is considered a luxury and a sign of intelligence; however, for deaf children, being bilingual is a vital skill necessary for their language and social development.
  8. Knowing American Sign Language is the key to socializing and interacting with the Deaf community. Many hard of hearing and cochlear implanted children desire later in life to be involved with deaf people. And while they are children, having ASL skills gives them access to deaf peers, deaf mentors, and the deaf community.
  9. Cochlear implants sometimes malfunction. No technology is beyond reproach. Sign fluency allows a deaf child to rely on their sign skills when in a jam. As a result, the child doesn’t miss the window for language fluency or access to communication when and if the technology falters.
  10. Signing is more convenient is some settings. When in a quiet setting like a play or a loud setting like a rock concert, sign language comes in handy to communicate in a discreet and clear way.
  11. Signing allows you to communicate from a distance. Under water. Through sound proof glass. One of my favorite experiences was snorkeling and communicating with my family under water– freaking awesome!
  12. Signing with your deaf child strengthens your bond. Many hearing parents fear losing their deaf child to the deaf community; however, clear communication is the key to healthy relationships that can’t be broken.
  13. Beyond the American deaf community, there is a global deaf community. Most of the world does not have access to cochlear implant or hearing aid technology. Knowing sign language, gives your deaf child access to deaf people around the world.

The way I see it, cochlear implants and American Sign Language are both tools for success, and I want my child to have all the tools and choices available to him.

I’ve seen children with cochlear implants speak English with the fluency and articulation of the crown prince. Yes, it’s amazing! But that does not negate that these same kids feel drawn to the deaf community and desire to interact with them.

It also doesn’t mean that oral kids don’t benefit from the aid of classroom interpreters. This is not a world of either or. We live in the age of and and. Our kids can have it all. Bilingual-Bicultural.

Elizabeth Engelman is the parent support specialist for The Family Center on Deafness. She lives in Dunedin, Florida with her husband and two children. Her son is profoundly Deaf and her daughter is hard of hearing. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Tampa and an MA in Poetry from Lancaster University. She is the recipient of the 2017 Marianne Russo Award, an Emerging Writer Award from The Key West Literary Seminar. 

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