As a long-time teacher, former world traveler, previous expat and world news junkie, I am well versed in the practice of climbing atop my high horse. And at the risk of sounding vain, might I add that perched upon my mighty steed, arms clutching research and eye-witness accounts, nose cocked as I stare over my glasses with a smug, judgmental gaze, I look damn good on a high horse.
Before my days were filled with boogers and butt wiping, I rode many a high horse. I was rigid about genocide after researching in Rwanda, dogmatic about the effects of lifelong fighting on children after a month in Belfast, authoritarian about Turkish politics after living there, emphatic about immigration after marrying the Turk (and being screwed by INS like a high end call girl) and the list goes on. But in the past few years, motherhood has caused me to stable my high horse. While I feel the occasional flare up from the old palomino when an unsuspecting fool makes a comment about immigrants (While my gut says, scream “Oh no you didn’t” I’ve found that isn’t as effective as a fact-filled, first hand account smack-down.) for the most part, I’ve been on the down low. Until now.
I’m new to this whole deaf and hard of hearing world and thus it will be quite some time before I’m ready to sit firmly upon the ol’ high horse regarding any of those issues. However, there is one subject on this journey that has been causing me to feel a stirring deep within, and while I first thought it might be my high-fiber diet, I realized that feeling is the need to mount my high horse and advocate in the arena of early language acquisition through ASL.
There are various schools of thought regarding language acquisition for deaf and hard of hearing kids. Some say sign only. Some say spoken English only. (Which is kind of stupid because that’s expecting a kid who can’t hear to be able to learn to speak… but I digress.) There are those who believe signing slows oral development (which has been proven wrong again and again). There are those who think signing alienates. And then there are those who think –give those babies every option and let them make the choice. I fall into the latter and now, almost a year later I’ve got good reason to believe the ‘give them both’ concept is the answer.
Last summer we learned that though Nugget was 2, his expressive language was that of a 6 month old. Even though he had one working ear and usually that should’ve been giving him enough access to speech to get him talking, it wasn’t so it was suggested we begin using ASL. I wasn’t expecting that. How was I going to teach my child a language I didn’t even know? How was I going to learn ASL? (I’m old and thanks to age, wine, and an excessive amount of Aqua Net in the 80’s, my brain cells were not in top form and learning Turkish had pretty much taken my last good ones.) I was told I needed to wade into a world completely foreign to me, again, and honestly, I didn’t want to. But I knew something had to happen. Nugget was trapped without a way to express his needs and boy, was he pissed.
Within weeks of meeting our Fairy Deaf Godmother (who waves her wand and suddenly he signs) everything changed. Once Nugget could discern his need and specify, “I’d like a dry martini” over “I just pooped,” his demeanor changed immediately. (No, he’s never ordered a dry martini but I felt it was a good sign for me to learn…you know…just in case.) While he still has latent tyrannical tendencies, it’s nothing like before.
In less than a year he’s developed an ASL vocabulary of close to 200 signs, knows his colors, numbers and much of the alphabet. He’s beginning to sign sentences and even tells me stories. What’s more, he’s begun to speak. (Oh not well or anything and with the exception of the words “go” and “hi” it’s like playing charades with a marble-mouthed drunk but he’s trying.) ASL gave him communication, which lessened his stress and gave him the confidence to play with speech. We gave him both languages and he’s deciding. Before he mostly signed but now he tries to say the word and signs it so I understand. Maybe someday he will only speak. It’s his choice.
Add to that incidents like today and I’m confident that the “give them both” approach is right. While Nugs and I were making an emergency toilet paper run to the store, we detoured to the donut counter. As we signed our conversation about donut selection, I noticed an older man watching. The man asked if Nugget was deaf and I told him ½ but he’s learning both ASL and English so he can communicate in whichever language is easier for him. The man smiled and said, “Thank you.” He pointed to his own hearing aids and told me, “I was born deaf but in 1944 they thought if you forced deaf kids into normal schools they’d learn to speak. I didn’t even have a hearing aid until I was older. I learned to lip read but it’s never been easy. I always wished I ‘d learned to sign. You’re doing the right thing. He’s going to do great.” (Oh you know that gave me a huge case of the feels.)
Communication is hard. Being a kid is hard. Being a kid who can’t communicate? Aw hells no. So as I continue on this journey and watch Nugget develop, I feel the need to get back in the saddle, clutching my research and first-hand knowledge, stare over my glasses judgmentally and say, “For the love of God people, shut up and give them both!”