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October 5, 2003

`Signing is not just for the deaf'

From: San Jose Mercury News, CA - Oct 5, 2003


By Lisa Fernandez
Mercury News

A small group of South Bay families met at a Cupertino park Saturday for an unusual type of play group. They sang songs, played duck-duck-goose and read books to each other.

It was unusual because the youngsters squeezed each other's shoulders to indicate ''goose,'' wiggled their fingers to read ''Brown Bear,'' and gestured with their hands to ''sing' the lyrics -- communicating without uttering a word.

The children, mostly 1- and 2-year-olds, and their parents who gathered at Portal Park are part of a growing number of families using American Sign Language to communicate not because they are deaf but because they think it's the best way to talk with a child not yet able to speak.

Experts say toddlers can communicate with their hands about six months before they can speak their first words. And doing so lessens the frustration they experience when they want more milk (squeeze their fists) or want out of the highchair when they're done with dinner (waggle their hands).

No one's certain why signing for babies is a new fad, but Rachel de Azevedo Coleman, the 28-year-old mother of a deaf child, organizer of the play group and creator of the video series ''Signing Time,'' said she believes the reason is simple.

''Parents see that it works,'' said Coleman, who lives in Salt Lake City. ''Signing is not just for the deaf. It's for everybody.''

Coleman said signing helps reduce frustration that leads to tantrums because children don't have to whine or grunt what they want but are able, for example, to tell their parents they prefer milk to water by making a ''W'' and hitting their chin.

Coleman and other deaf teachers say it takes roughly one to two months to teach babies or 1-year-olds their first signs: usually ''more,'' ''all done,'' ''milk,'' and an array of farm animals. They say babies can communicate using sign language as early as 12 months, about six to eight months before they're ready to utter their first words.

Months before he could speak, 2-year-old Ethan Hintz of San Jose shook his hands in the air while sitting in his highchair, alerting his parents, Robert and Jane, he was through with his meal. He also used that sign while in line at the supermarket, signaling he was ''all done'' with the wait.

'It helps him communicate and tell us what he wants,'' Jane Hintz said.

Ethan started watching Coleman's video at a year old and gestured his first sign two months later. Today, he has a verbal vocabulary of about 100 words and knows about 40 signs.

Coleman said she has sold 35,000 copies of the video to places as far away as Japan and Malaysia since last year. She's done little marketing; sales have mostly been by word of mouth.

While there are many sign-language videos, fans say Coleman's series is different because it's not boring, with stiff-faced adults teaching the words. Instead, kids -- Coleman's deaf daughter, Leah, 6, and hearing cousin, Alex, 5 -- are the instructors, teaching with music and pictures.

The idea for the signing video came out of necessity. Coleman, a musician in a folk/pop band called ''We The Living'' discovered her daughter was deaf at 14 months old. She and her husband, Aaron, 31, who used to work at a youth center for the city of Los Angeles, began learning American Sign Language. Within six months, Leah's signing vocabulary surpassed that of hearing children the same age, Coleman said. Coleman's sister, Emilie de Azevedo Brown, who used to live next door to her when they lived in Studio City, taught her son, Alex, sign language so he could talk with his cousin.

The two sisters saw how great it was for both kids to communicate. And they decided to produce a sign-language video together. They thought it would also be a boon for children with disabilities. Coleman gave birth to a second daughter, Lucy, 3, who has spina bifida and cerebral palsy. Lucy can speak and use sign language.

Whenever she visits a new city, she organizes a play group to create communities of sign-language users. San Jose is the sixth city she has visited so far.


Coleman will speak today at noon and 2 p.m. at the Los Madres Fall Festival at 10185 N. Stelling Road in Cupertino about why it's important to use sign language with your children. For more information, see .

© 2003 Mercury News and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.