In this befuddled, grieving, anxious state, we had to make decisions. Our first, very human, response was that Rus would have to talk, whatever the cost; that we would find the technology, wherever it might be, to "fix" his deafness. A friend cautiously suggested we considered "signing" and put a copy of Oliver Sack's moving book, Seeing Voices, our way. It has been our biggest breakthrough in the journey we've taken with Rus during the past seven months.
We decided his first language would be British Sign Language. We would move heaven and earth to learn to sign ourselves. We'd find signing friends for him and we'd teach our friends to sign. We began tentatively, by using a dictionary, and started with the signs for "light" and "hot". A week later, at still only 11 months, Rus began to use the signs himself.
But confusion and even more unhappiness set in. The professionals involved with Rus were either adamantly opposed to our efforts, or at best lukewarm. We were told that he had sufficient hearing to listen and talk and could therefore be part of mainstream society. Signing would relegate him to the deaf community alone. Signing would be the "easy" option for him and he would not make the effort to listen. We were advised to deprive our son of all other forms of language to force him to pay attention to sound and speech alone.
Rus did not like this at all. He keptpulling out his hearing aids and I became concerned that forcing them on him too often might damage our relationship. Signing was indeed "easier" for Rus and he was making huge strides; by 14 months, he was using more than 40 signs. But we were lucky if the aids stayed in for 20 minutes. The audiologist had insisted they be in all day. My husband and I became very anxious, and had our first serious arguments.
We continued to sign, however, because we needed to communicate with our child and because we saw how desperate he was for a language. We also signed because we saw it transforming him from a monster - because of his frustration and unhappiness - into a happy, alert toddler.
Meanwhile, we tried to inform ourselves as objectively as possible. I work with children with learning difficulties, and we were trained to teach by using children's preferred channels for acquiring information. Having made some progress, we then aimed to build up their weaker channels. My work also made Sacks's argument - that children need a language as soon as possible - very compelling. Deaf children, I was convinced, cannot afford to wait until they learn to hear sounds and then spoken language. It made sense that signing children could learn to speak by redeploying the rules they used to learn to sign just as children readily acquire a second spoken language.
We seemed to be in a minority. No other parents of pre-school children at our deaf children's society were signing with their little ones, although our wonderful teacher of the deaf was supporting our efforts to learn signing.
Then, the miracle happened. Rus started to say recognisable words, mainly without consonants, such as "ou" for out and "aw" for ball, but words nevertheless. He signed and spoke at the same time. Not only had he bothered to listen, but he is also bothering to talk and practise perfecting his speech. By watching us intently, his "aw" has become "ball", and once he mastered this first clear word, he said and signed it all the time.
His progress since seems no less miraculous. At 18 months, he has a spoken vocabulary of more than 80 words and manages a number with two syllables. Of these, 15 are perfectly enunciated.
The argument that we might have damaged our son's chances of talking by signing with him was being disproved before our very eyes, by a little mite then only 16 months old.
Obviously, we are lucky. Rus has enough residual hearing for him to be able to hear spoken sounds. We will continue to sign with Rus, although he is now talking too. We believe signing has facilitated his acquisition of spoken language. At 16 months, he could sign the concepts "same" and "different". He had a vocabulary of more than 200 signs and could construct simple sentences such as "Where's the ball?" At 18 months, there are more signed sentences, and he can sign emotions such as sad or angry. He can sign practically any animal or vehicle and he is even beginning to sign colours.
We are happy the spoken "where ball?", "sad" and "tractor" followed some weeks later. But there are many situations in which hearing aids cannot be used - in the bath, while romping or being comforted in the middle of the night. Sign communication does not stop when the hearing aids are out.
If British Sign Language remains our son's chosen language, we will support that. If, later on, his chosen community is the deaf community, we will endorse it. He will have the choice. Our heartfelt belief, however, is that signing and the encouragement of listening and talking should not be presented as either/or options. To deprive a deaf child of either form of communication seems to limit horizons in a way we find impossible to justify.Reuse content