As a parent of a deaf child, it’s been very important to me to give her a language. In a world that’s dominated by hearing people, it’s very easy to associate language with speech. While speech is a part of language, it’s not the only part.
A quote that I love from Thomas Gallaudet:
“American Sign Language is of great value to the deaf, but could also be of great benefit to the hearing as well … It is superior to spoken language in it’s beauty and emotional expressiveness. It brings kindred souls into a much more close and conscious communion than mere speech can possibly do.”
We have heard all the reasons not to sign with her – most frequently the “if you let her sign she’ll never learn to speak”. I haven’t read or heard of a single instance in which the use of sign language has kept a child from learning to speak. In fact, quite the opposite. In todays world, we often advocate the use of ‘baby sign language’ – which is often, but not always, ASL signs. We advocate its use because it helps a child communicate, it lessens frustrations and tantrums, it facilitates further language development, and not once has it ever interfered with a child speaking. And yet, when it comes to deaf children, suddenly, ASL is taboo. Suddenly, it will keep them from speech.
The thing is, my child does talk. She talks with her hands, just not her voice. Speech is only a part of language – in fact, if we pay attention to ourselves and our day to day communication, how much of it is in gestures, body language, touch, etc.? Language is so much more than simple speech.
We experienced the tantrums, the screams, the frustration with my daughter before we started using ASL. Can you imagine the feeling of not being able to communicate? Imagine not being able to tell your mother that something hurts, or that you’re hungry, or that you want to go outside? Imagine not being able to tell your child that you love them because you refuse to use her language. The thought of putting my daughter back into that situation is absolutely heartbreaking.
And let’s face it, keeping deaf children from sign language has never worked. It’s never facilitated speech. It has limited them, it has kept them from knowledge and education. ASL opens the door to all of that.
When we started using ASL, she blossomed. My sister commented to me that she came out of her shell – it was like she existed in her own little world before that. After we brought ASL into her life, she lit up – her smile is seen so much more often now, her joy in life is apparent every day. We didn’t see those things until we gave her a language. And she was like a sponge – she just soaked it up (and still does). She has always been patient, waiting for us to look a sign up in the dictionary – because she so desperately wants to learn. She far outstrips us in how quickly and easily she learns and retains new words, but she is always happy to teach us. She has become a joyful, expressive, silly child – and I credit ASL for that. Without it, I don’t think those sides of her would ever have shown.
My daughter has a language now. It is a beautiful, expressive language that I am blessed to have the opportunity to learn. And if she ever learns to speak, it is a skill that will serve her in navigating the hearing world. But ASL will give her the ability to navigate throughout her life. It has given her knowledge of the world, it has given her joy, and it gives her power. Power to communicate, and to not be limited by anything or anyone.
That is why I sign.