Friday, August 11, 2017

Is Baby Signing Good for the Deaf Community?

There seems to be some controversy in the Deaf community about the Baby Signing movement - a movement by hearing parents of hearing preverbal children, teaching their children to sign in an attempt to boost cognition and early language ability.

As a hearing person who plans to sign with my children, I've looked at the controversy and arguments, and here are my thoughts.

First, it's important to remember that sign languages aren't just languages - they're also assistive technology. There are people for whom learning a sign language has benefits well beyond those accrued by learning a second spoken language. Deaf people, obviously, fall into this category, but so do many hearing people, especially those with complex communication needs and kids who are strongly visual-kinesthetic learners.

It's also important to remember that unlike a physical piece of technology, signs are not a limited commodity. Many Deaf people have complained that, in a time when Deaf babies still don't have guaranteed access to signs, hearing babies are being signed to. But while that is ironic, signing to a hearing child doesn't take away access to signs for a Deaf child. In fact, quite the opposite.

Hillary Wittington, in her book Raising Ryland, describes how when her son Ryland was 8 months old, a fellow mother told her that she'd enrolled herself and her hearing son into a sign language class, extolling the benefits of the class. When Ryland was almost 14 months, another friend, Jenn, said that she's enrolled her hearing daughter into sign language classes, and convinced Hillary to go to an intro to check it out. Two days before the intro, her father-in-law told her that he was concerned about his granddaughter's hearing. She gets assessed by an audiologist several months later and is diagnosed as profoundly deaf.

Because of her friend's involvement in baby signing, Hillary and Ryland began baby signing classes before he was even diagnosed as deaf. Ryland's grandmother and uncle both study signing with her. Despite choosing to get Ryland a cochlear implant, Hillary insists on continuing to sign, both to allow Ryland to communicate before he can speak, and for those times that Ryland will need to remove the external processor. By the time Ryland has his implant activated at 20 months, he knows more than 200 signs, and he continues to use signs throughout the book whenever he is not wearing his external processor.

Besides those Deaf children whose hearing parents get coincidentally involved in baby signs before their diagnosis - or possibly even before they are born, if they have older siblings - the increasing awareness and normalization of baby signing is likely to reduce the fear of signing for many hearing parents.

One of the biggest fears for many hearing parents is that if they sign, their child will never learn to speak. While we should also challenge the prejudice that leads to parents valuing speech over alternate communication modes, the central tenet of baby signing is that signing helps speech. So even if parents value speech over sign, this need not stop them from signing.

And it's not just Deaf people who need to sign. Parents of children with complex communication needs often don't feel welcome in the Deaf community, and their children, who generally understand speech far better than they can speak, don't have the same needs. Many of the stylistic traits that hearing signers gravitate to and Deaf people label as bad signing, such as PSE and signing while speaking, actually suit the needs of hearing people with CCN better than ASL does.

Many CCNs are also harder to diagnose accurately than profound deafness, and can't be diagnosed in newborns. Which means that the only way most children with CCN will be exposed to sign before their speech falls behind is if their parents are signing when they believe their child is an NT hearing child (this happened to Maya from Uncommon Sense).


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