Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Sign Language

I am helping my niece prepare for college. She is a high school student enrolled in a full academic program with a number of honors level courses. Interpreters are struggling with fingerspelling words in earth science and algebra. We have been advised to seek note-takers by one set of people and others suggest a laptop. The school district has limited resources. Can you steer me in a direction to find out which accommodations would serve her best. She wants to attend college and is interested in law. She is a diligent student.

Question from D.B., New York. Posted November 30, 2011.
Response from A.P. - NTID

You didn’t provide much information about your niece and her communication skills and preferences. You mentioned interpreters struggling with science and math signing, and we assume that your niece prefers that means of receiving academic information. If that is the case, there are resources on the Web that will help your niece and her interpreters identify signs for many science and mathematics terms. One resource that might help you is the online science signs lexicon at http://www.rit.edu/ntid/sciencesigns/. At the same time, make sure she keeps up with her reading. When it comes to test time, she will need to recognize and know the meanings of the technical terms, not just their signs.

Notetakers and real-time captioning (often now done with laptops) are additional support services that many deaf students use in high school classrooms around the country.  The accommodations that would best serve your niece would take into consideration her preferred support services and what is available in her school.  Often, a deaf student has an individualized education plan designed by the student, teachers, and parents, and they decide as a team what resources to provide.  Have you discussed this with your niece? Does she have such a plan (IEP) with her needs and the school resources defined?

When and/or how much will a deaf student fall behind his hearing peers in school if he needs but does not have an interpreter

Question from M.Z., California. Posted November 3, 2011.

A deaf student who enters school with the same language-literacy skills as hearing “grade-level” peers should not fall behind if the IFSP, IEP, or 504 plan recommendations are appropriate and followed. If, however, recommendations call for an educational interpreter and one is not provided, then we would expect harmful consequences, but we can never really know the degree to which or direction in which learning will be affected.

A deaf student who enters school lagging behind grade-level hearing peers will likely continue lagging at the end of the school year(s), even when IFSP, IEP, or 504 recommendations are appropriately provided. That’s because the best predictors of success in school tend to be strong language-literacy foundations at the onset of school. Frankly, we can never be sure how much a student’s skills will compensate the lack of an interpreter or interact with an inadequate or talented interpreter to shift learning from one direction to another. Multiple variables on any given day, week, month or school year influence the learning we all experience. That’s why federal laws guide those of us who inform decisions to view each case in its totality and, when moving the learning gauge, stack the supports to favor maximum.

What is the role of a speech therapist in communication development of a 7-year-old deaf child using sign language?

Question from Z.D., South Africa. Posted October 27, 2011.

The role of a speech therapist or the speech-language pathologist (SLP) in the case of a 7 year-old deaf child using sign language  is intrinsic and multi-faceted.  The clinician must be aware of the implications of the type of sign-language being used.  If the child is using American Sign Language (ASL) then there will be bilingual issues to be addressed when it comes to teaching reading, because the child must learn English to read.  The SLP can facilitate learning English Grammar forms in preparation for reading and writing in English whether the sign system used is a contrived system such as Signed English, or ASL.

There are also many things that can be done with both spoken phonology (sounds of the language) that can contribute to the ability to decode printed words (phonological awareness and phonological processing).  In fact, just because a child is using sign language, this does not rule out that using voice to communicate might be a goal.  The child may want to target high use words and phrases for speaking.   Children who are deaf also may need to target “pragmatics” or the practical use of language in social contexts. It is the proverbial “knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it – and how to “be” with other people.”  Because deaf children do not always “overhear” social niceties, they may need to be taught these things directly (e.g., we don’t typically ask grown-ups their age, or even if you do not care for a particuar gift you get it would be impolite to say “I don’t like this!” ).

Other areas the SLP may target is helping the child to increase vocabulary, (especially multiple meaning words), learning idiomatic language “put the lights out.” In summary one of the key elements to your question is the word “language. ”  The role of the SLP is to facilitate speech and language learning in all contexts and modalities appropriate for the individual.

I became totally deaf at the age of 34, and am now 47. I am a full-time student working towards my Bachelors in Social Work. Having been on both sides (hearing and deaf), and through my education, I know the importance of communication regardless of what mode a parent uses to teach a child.

My question is this, in my internship I am working with a client whose parents want me to teach their child phonics. Their child has never heard a sound what-so-ever. I honestly don’t see the point in it, as how do you describe a “hard C” vs. a “soft C” to someone who has never heard. I do understand wanting to teach them the correct endings to words, such as when to add “ed” (as in worked). In ASL one would sign “finish” + “work” or vice versa. I can see how that would benefit a deaf child in knowing how ASL and English connect for reading, writing, and comprehension.

What are your thoughts on the parts of the phonic’s lessons that rely on having some auditory hearing to use as a base for teaching it? What does one say to hearing parents who want their deaf child to know how each letter is pronounced with phonics, when the child is completely deaf? For me, I still have use of my voice, I just don’t hear anything at all, but knowing phonics has helped my interpreters and friends in teaching me how to voice a new vocabulary word or someone’s name correctly. I just can’t imagine the benefits of this information to someone who has never heard. Am I wrong in my thinking? Or should I focus on helping this child make the connection between ASL and English?

This child’s ASL understanding is wonderful, and they can communicate and articulate very well, but lacks in English comprehension skills. I have noticed this when I ask if they understood the paragraph they just read, and they reply yes. Then when I pick out a word and ask them to tell me the meaning, they say they don’t know. When I then show them the ASL sign for the word, their face lights up and they fully understand then.

Question from T.S., Michigan. Posted June 20, 2011.

My first thought was to refer this question to a speech therapist… or language person of some kind. However, that’s not what this is about. First of all, you really do not have much choice in this matter; it’s the parent’s decision. Yes, you can and should educate the parents to the greatest extent possible (and appropriate), but their desires are not surprising, and you have to respect their wishes if you were going to continue working with the child. But, you raise an excellent second point. There is no evidence that fluency in a signed language is sufficient to provide a deaf child with the underpinnings necessary for English literacy. Research and theory both point to the need for some kind of a bridge. For some deaf individuals the bridge is speechreading, for others it is cochlear implants or an English-based signing system. Supporting this child’s ASL skills will help to provide a fluent first language on which to build literacy. Phonics will help to bridge the child’s language skills to English literacy. You are an outstanding model for both the child and the child’s parents. Hopefully, you can help to educate all of them at the same time.

I was looking at the pay scale for a “deaf coach” or “sign skills coach.” I work with a student who is profoundly hearing impaired and uses ASL. The student’s TOD has said that I am qualified, and as far as she is concerned I am a sign skill coach with out the title. I am a 1:1 paraeducator and earn very little. I am looking to further my ASL skills and maybe advance in my field.

Question from S.C., New York. Posted March 23, 2011.

The Signing Skills Coach position as it developed in our BOCES program:

It evolved from a position originally titled “Skills Coach.” A Skills Coach worked 1:1 with a student to support classroom instruction and practice academic skills that the teacher had presented to the class. During these years, it was noted that there were many children who needed more of a paraprofessional/aide position with sign language skills. These children, however, were not ready or able to utilize the fluency of an interpreter. This developed into a Skills Coach who signed, or a ‘Signing’ Skills Coach. Not a Sign Skills Coach, which many people assume this title means. Currently we have SSCs working with students who may have multiple disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, or a variety of other possible conditions. About half of these children have hearing loss. Other children are hearing but non-verbal and are learning sign for expressive language purposes.

Salaries for the SSCs are based upon educational background. The current rate for a per diem sub in western New York is $12-13/hour. Starting salary rates are a little higher and include benefits.

I am the mother of a 7 year old deaf child. My daughter passed her newborn hearing screen and a follow up ABR at 6 months old (she was high risk due to being in the NICU). But she began losing her hearing by 15 months old and was dx’ed with a moderately severe loss by 18 months and fitted with hearing aids.

We began to speak and sign but she never “caught on” to spoken language. At 3, she was placed at a Deaf school. We continued to do therapy, but she didn’t gain any spoken language. She quickly became pretty fluent in ASL.

In kindergarten her hearing loss progressed and she received a CI. She suddenly was able to process spoken language. She has made tremendous gains in her spoken language in the two years since she was implanted. She understands and discriminates running spoken language and has gained nearly 5 years worth of language. She is now in a well respected oral school.

So, my question is this….can she actually catch up? She hears very well, but can she reach age appropriate with her spoken language? Or do we eventually de-emphasis it and go back to ASL?

Question from A Mom, Confusion USA. Posted March 21, 2011.

It sounds as if your daughter had a very solid language base (ASL) in those first years of her life, which tells us that her language-learning skills seem to be intact, thus she is a “language learner.” You also say that she has made 5 years of gain in her language skills (I am assuming English skills) over the past few years, which again provides evidence that she had a strong language system in place to “map” the spoken English language onto. From what we know about second language learning and from deaf children learning spoken language with CIs, I would say she has an excellent prognosis.  A study published by Nichols and Geers (2007, see below), also provides us with evidence that would suggest your daughter is on the road to success.  That study found that the smaller language delay a child has when they receive a CI, the better the chances are that the child will, indeed catch up. Given that your daughter seems to have been performing at a very high level with regard to language (ASL) at the time she received a CI in the first place, we can be very optimistic about her future language abilities.  It will be very important in the next few years to target her ability to learn to read and write.  Once she is reading, she will continue to acquire the higher levels of language she will need to become a competent language learner.

Further reading:

Nichols, J. & Geers, A. (2007). Will they catch up ?  The role of age at cochlear implantation in the spoken language development of children with severe to profound hearing loss.  Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 50, 1048–1062.

My daughter recently had a baby who was born deaf. We are all trying to come to grips with this, but we are getting conflicting information. I have been reading everything that I can find about deaf children and a lot of it recommends using sign language. The audiologist we spoke to said that if we use sign language with her it will retard her ability to speak. Can you help?

Question from S. A., Texas. Posted February 22, 2011.

This is one of the most common dilemmas facing parents (and grandparents) of deaf children – and perhaps the one for  which they are most frequently given advice driven by philosophy rather than evidence. Simply put, there is no evidence that learning to sign interferes with learning to speak. In fact, the research points to early sign language either supporting spoken language or having no effect, while it generally leads to better social-emotional functioning and early academic achievement. That said, all of this is much more complex than such a simple answer implies. Let me suggest an excellent video on the topic available in English and Spanish (captioned in both). “Through Your Child’s Eyes” is objective and informative…and should answer many of your questions.

Importantly, though, there is no need for an “either/or” decision.  Providing your granddaughter with access to and support for both sign language and spoken language offers more opportunities for learning. And, no, the two will not interfere with each other any more than two languages do for bilingual children around the world. In fact, hearing children raised in bilingual environments show cognitive advantages as early as seven months of age (even before they are using those languages), although parallel research has not been done with deaf children.

I am currently working with a 14 yo student who has had a single Cochlear Implant (CI) for a bit less than one year now.
The school district has brought in a Teacher of the Deaf who “Specializes” in working with children who have a CI. In reality the Teacher is from an “Oral Only” school for the Deaf and at a recent IEP meeting it was ‘recommended’ that the Interpreters be removed right away.

With over 15 years of experience interpreting for children, I know that this is the absolute worst thing the school could do. At minimum, the child needs a transition period. And it is entirely possible that the child will use interpreting services for the rest of their life. As the child grows up, that will be their decision. But for now, it is my belief that a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) should include accommodations that the child has had all along. I can not convince the School of this because “I” am not an “expert”, I am ‘just’ the interpreter.

Can you provide research or other documentation that the path being examined, removal of interpreting services, is a bad choice? Or, documented research of how people with CI continue to use Interpreting Services frequently and the benefits of this?

Question from D.G., Connecticut. Posted January 3, 2011.

You are caught in the middle of an all-too-familiar situation. Unfortunately for all concerned (and the student in particular) the evidence is not as clear as everyone assumes. That is, there are studies showing that children (much younger than this one) with cochlear implants benefit from greater exposure to spoken language compared to those in sign language settings, but there is no evidence that there is any particular amount of exposure that is necessary or sufficient. In contrast, the only study we are aware of in which students with cochlear implants (including those who receive them relatively late) were performing academically at a level equivalent to their hearing peers was one in which the students all had access to sign language interpreting in the classroom (see below).

With young children, there is evidence that neural pathways associated with hearing are still developing, and greater exposure to language through the cochlear implant is important. That is not going to be the case with a 14-year-old, however. As you point out, the student is in need of transition. In fact, there is abundant research indicating that sign language together with a cochlear implant either facilitates spoken language or is independent of it. There is no evidence of any harm. Those who argue for “total auditory immersion” with the implant typically rely on a “laziness” argument, suggesting that the child will not utilize hearing if they have the easier route of sign language. In theory, the two together should be beneficial, allowing the child to use sign language to fill in the gaps of the auditory input from the implant (which is significantly degraded from normal speech) – and vice versa.

Because of the diversity of students and educational settings, there is not going to be any research demonstrating that either removing interpreting services or keeping them in a situation like this is going to make a significant difference one way or another. However, given the lack of evidence for sign language creating any difficulties in the evidence indicating its benefits for students with implants, removal doesn’t seem like a very good idea. Perhaps most importantly, however, the student is 14 years old; his/her preference needs to be taken into account.

Suggested reading:

Spencer, L.J., Gantz, B.J. & Knutson, J.F. (2004).  Outcomes and achievement of students who grew up with access to cochlear implants.  Laryngoscope 114, 1576 –1581.

Spencer, P. E., Marschark, M., & Spencer, L.J. (2011). Cochlear implants: Advances, issues and implications. In M. Marschark & P. E. Spencer, Editors (in press). Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, Volume 1, second edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

This morning in “RID Interpreting in the News” I read a story about several people learning sign to communicate in school with a deaf student. His interpreter said the following: “Ninety-eight percent of families with a deaf individual never learn sign language, said, a statistic she called staggering.” Can this be true?

Question from C.M., Rochester, NY. Posted October 15, 2010.

Actually, I would have guessed the number was closer to 99%. But, notice that the interpreter was talking about “deaf individuals,” not deaf students. There are millions of older people in the United States who have lost their hearing and whose families will never learn sign language. Unfortunately, there are no good statistics about how many families of deaf children use sign language. It has been estimated that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use American Sign Language, but many more (especially hearing families) use other forms of signed communication. Data from the Gallaudet Research Institute’s Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children and Youth recently indicated that over 24% of deaf K-12 students’ families “regularly sign,” but we have no idea how many others use sign language some of the time. Another important factor is the age of the student. Many parents who adopt an oral approach to education and family communication early on end up signing, along with their children, during the later school years. It thus appears that the interpreter’s statement was either misleading or wrong… but then it is an election year in the United States.

I work as sign language researcher at the Centre for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing in Iceland.

I am preparing a lecture for deaf parents on language stimulation. There is enough literature on this issue but I face the following problem: deaf immigrants who only know their sign language. They ask us, which language to speak at home to our children, both deaf and hearing, our mother sign language, Icelandic sign language (in cases of deaf children of deaf immigrants) or Icelandic. For me the answer is: their mother sign language and let the children do extra classes in Icelandic/Icelandic sign language. I understand also why they would like to use Icelandic sign language and even Icelandic but I stil am on the opinion that they should use their mothertongue at home.

Are you familiar with literature on this particular issue: deaf immigrants and language stimulation for their children? I will apriciate if you can point me on some literature or even if you can advise me what to say to the deaf parents.

Question from N.I., Iceland. Posted September 19, 2010.

This is a simple question with an answer that is really far too complex to do it justice on this forum.  I will attempt the beginning of an answer.  I am not actually aware of any literature that directly addresses this question, but it’s one we deal with in Toronto all the time (immigrants of all kinds, including signing deaf immigrants).

The literature on home- vs. school-language in hearing immigrants says that maintaining the home language is important for several reasons.  First, maintaining a high level of competence in the mother tongue helps support the cognitive-linguistic development of the children in both the mother tongue and the new language.  Relatedly, the way for the children to maintain a high level of competence in the mother tongue is for the parents (i.e., adult language users of that language ) to continue to speak it, rather than a broken form of the new language, or if not broken, then not as competent form of the new language.  Secondly, the children are forced to live in the second language daily anyway, and will learn it well, particularly if they are interacting in the spoken and written forms of that language.  It may take a few years, but it will happen, barring a fundamental language learning disorder.

That said, older children and teens will probably have more difficulty learning the second language, especially if they are not literate in their first language.  However, children and teens who are literate in their mother tongue can use, to the extent that there are similarities between the written forms of the languages, their literacy knowledge to help them learn the second language.  The whole issue is far more complex than “the younger the better” because very young children are typically not literate in their first language.  However, very young children often learn their second language without an accent, and in the absence of (especially literate) support in their mother tongue, may even lose their first language.

My anecdotal experience is that the kids who come with a mother signed language learn ASL signs very quickly in school, and become communicative (maybe bilingual, but I’m not sur) in two signed languages.  Learning English is a challenge anyway, for all the typical deaf reasons, but since literacy instruction is in English, they learn a modicum of English because they are in school.  I don’t know how many were literate or maintain literacy in the language of their country of origin. With respect to deaf and hard of hearing children who move from country to country, the situation interacts with the more fundamental difficulty of quantity and quality of access to competent users of both spoken languages and both signed languages, and of course, to the literate form of any of the languages.

So my short answer to your question is exactly what you thought in the first place, for the reasons I outlined above.  But there are a lot of caveats to that.

For the hard-of-hearing children, the signed language piece may not even be part of the question, unless the parents are deaf, too.

Then, of course, you have the kids with implants, who may or not be signing.  But the analogy still holds.  Competent users of any language should maintain that language in the home.  All the better if these competent users also know/learn the new language, because at some point, the kids’ competence in the new language will overtake the mother tongue because they are being educated in the new language.

The worst case scenario (and I have seen this happen in the Japanese American and Japanese Canadian population) is for the parents to stop speaking their own language and try to communicate in the new language, because then the kids end up with second-language competence in both languages — that is, no real native language, although English tends to be a bit better.