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.

Question from T.K., Oregon

My almost 3-year-old daughter has a moderate to almost severe hearing loss in both ears (55-65 db). She uses ASL and also speaks while signing though her signing is more developed. She wears two hearing aids, since she was 1 year old. We use ASL at home (I am deaf myself) and also speak, at the same time. She is receiving services at a regional program and attends school a few times a month with other deaf children. This will soon increase to 2 mornings a week when she turns 3. We decided to add another school/Childcare, 2 mornings a week, that has all hearing students and the staff all knows a few signs while one staff knows more ASL though not fluent. That one staff isn’t always present. My concern is this: I believe she would benefit from more sign support either through an interpreter or a family friend (due to cost) to help serve as a bridge. She sometimes appears lost while looking around the classroom. She has had a difficult adjustment period though they have recently added more sign information and that has helped. Her regional teacher feels this school provides more auditory development for her, to hear and speak. There is a concern she may cling to whoever signs and not socialize much. I question whether anyone truly understands how much she catches with her aids. I wonder if it is best to provide extra sign support in the beginning and then taper off as needed when her abilities are clearly known. People have said she is only at the “other” school about 7 hours each week and all other times, she gets ASL. Will providing more sign support in this environment hinder her hearing / speaking abilities later?

Question from T.K., Oregon. Posted May 3, 2012.
Response from Linda Jones-Oleson - Gallaudet University

The short answer to your question about whether or not sign language support will interfere with eventual spoken language development is an unqualified – NO.  There is no evidence that signing interferes with speech if speech is feasible for a child and supported by her auditory and oral-motor abilities.  How lucky for your daughter that she has fluent adult models for both ASL and English at home – and at the same time no less! The bigger issue seems to be what kinds of information your child has access to in the preschool class where less signing is available from the adults and virtually no signing is available from the children. Given your comment about her “difficult adjustment,” your child may benefit from more “scaffolding” for both social interaction and vocabulary learning in the new preschool setting. Providing more help in the beginning meets her immediate needs – always a good idea in the long run.  It would be unwise to suppose that she is able to function in one modality – hearing, at one school and another modality – vision, in the other.  Though she will almost certainly acquire two languages, she is one child with a singular need for optimal, that is to say dual, inputs in every linguistic encounted.

Satisfying social interaction is the most natural and powerful motivation for language learning.  If socializing is a goal – and it should be at age 3, then having supportive adults to help navigate interactions with age peers is a good idea. This help could come from an interpreter or family friend as you suggest, if their role is clearly defined and reinforced by the other adults in the classroom.  If learning language through listening and auditory skills are a goal, but the context is a preschool with hearing children who cannot sign, some kind of adult mediation is certainly warranted. Though always a risk when using interpreters, the signing adult need not be the sole source of either auditory or signed language input.  Perhaps activities could be devised wherein the signing adult teaches a hearing age peer to be a partner in listening games. Similarly, the signing adults could serve as on-the-spot tutors for the hearing children to learn signs for key words that support spoken language vocabulary in the course of play-based interactions.

That your child is looking around confused, though distressing emotionally, is a good indicator that she knows that she does not know, and she is looking for a way in – an access modality. This sensitivity to needing language input is hard to teach, but something that her teachers can exploit every day.  Given that the limits of her auditory-only reception are uncertain for now, and that she is looking for input on the hands, she should be given routine access to concurrent, or at the very least sequential, signed and spoken English whenever ASL is not being used. Routine access means that the speech she cannot perceive is supported by signs on the spot and the signs she knows are associated with spoken English words that will eventually become the basis of her ability to develop text literacy i.e., reading and writing.