Statistics say 90 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents who have little or no knowledge of deafness.
For those parents, BSL interpreter Vicki Frost, said it's always going to be a complicated time when they're given the news their child is deaf.
"It won't have been something parents prepared for and then they suddenly have to deal with a lot of people's opinions about how they should proceed.
"The biggest thing to remember is, your child might be deaf but there's so much on offer for them. A child being deaf means a difference in their communication and the strategies parents put in place, but they have the same happy healthy child they assumed they were going to have."
Vicki's company Sign Connect will soon become an online hub for free school resources for deaf children that they can access through a QR code. The National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS) website is also brimming with learning tools for deaf children and has a family curriculum to make learning sign language less daunting.
Emma Fraser, Teacher of the Deaf at the NDCS, said: "BSL is the right communication method for some deaf children, but they'll need access to fluent signers in order to pick it up. Their development is also supported by friends and family being able to sign as well.
"If a deaf child’s family also learns BSL, it will help everyone to express and understand the complex feelings and emotions a child experiences as they get older. They will also feel more included in family conversations, jokes and activities, helping to develop their confidence and maintain their wellbeing.
"Deaf children face a higher risk of isolation, so it’s important to foster a close relationship between them and their siblings. If a child decides to use sign language, it’s really important families take every step of the journey with them."
Ann Jillings' family began learning sign language when youngest son Daniel, 14, was born and diagnosed as being profoundly deaf. Daniel has two older brothers so the family's priority was to find BSL classes close to home so the family could learn together.
"Although he was given hearing aids when he was just a few weeks old, at that age we had no idea how much benefit they gave and whether he could hear us speaking. We decided to use BSL and speech, so he would have as many language options as possible and we could communicate regardless of what he could hear."
Ann gradually used more BSL as the family's vocabulary and understanding of BSL grammar improved.
Ann has lots of tips to help hearing families of deaf children learn sign language:
- Start learning early and use the signs you know as much as you can. Children learn language from the conversations around them so try to do that with signs.
- Use BSL resources. We had flashcards on display, labelled everyday objects and shared picture books. We loved watching signed stories too. You'd be amazed how many signs you can all pick up by watching native signers telling children's stories.
- Enjoy it! It’s easy to put pressure on yourself and compare yourself to other signers who look much more fluent. What matters is the conversations you can have with your child, so relax and have fun practising.
Create A Community
Kirsty Gray is a deaf BSL tutor. Her advice to hearing parents is to create a community.
She said: "Just like my own parents, it's important to build a support network of people who understand. For my parents, this happened through talking to other parents of Deaf children at my school. You could arrange for day trips with all the Deaf children and their parents. This will help the children build a strong Deaf identity. I have amazing memories from my childhood of this and it really helped my parents get the help and advice they needed to best support me."
Reach out to a group like Deaf Parenting UK or find your local Deaf Club.
Find Deaf Tutors
Deaf BSL teachers and deaf awareness trainers are highly qualified and have the advantage of lived experience. The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf has a wealth of teaching resources online. Their homeschooling page brings together teaching materials from UK deaf schools and groups. There's also @d/DeafToD – a support network for D/deaf Teachers of the Deaf. Plus, engage with the Twitter hashtags #deafteachers and #deaftutors.
BSL Or SSE?
A big decision for parents of deaf children is whether to use BSL or sign-supported English (SSE). BSL tutor Kirsty believes each are equally as important.
"SSE follows the linear grammatical structure of English. SSE supports children in learning English grammar and learning written English. By teaching your child SSE, they'll be more independent in their adult life as they'll be less reliant on others for reading written English.
"It's important for parents of Deaf children to learn BSL because as a child grows they may use SSE, but as they enter the Deaf world their language may change to more BSL, so you'll need both to understand your child."
Kirsty's Memory Game
- Start with three groups of objects e.g. household objects, food and animals.
- Lay the objects in their groups on a table.
- Teach your child the sign for each object and the group of objects.
- Then, cover the objects and ask then in BSL to recall as many objects by signing back to you.
"This game is very popular with children as it gives them the challenge of remembering what they've seen. With a group of children, it can get them signing together and communicating about the game. You can also ask your child to point at the object you're signing about e.g. "Apple where?" and the same can be done with colours. This will improve their ability to watch and understand sign language and get you practising too."
Deaf YouTube channels are a great way for your child to absorb sign language and find deaf role models. Seeing thriving deaf young adults will give your child a glimpse of their own future and let them know they're part of a community. Some D/deaf YouTubers to follow – Mr AsamoahTV, KJ DeafGirl, Mr Luke Christian, Deaffie Blogger, Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, Jazzy and Vilma Jackson.
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