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March 10, 2006

Deaf Talkabout: No substitute to use of sign language

From: Belfast Telegraph, United Kingdom - Mar 10, 2006

By Bob McCullough

That was the startling announcement from Janet Young, resource development officer of the Deaf Association of Northern Ireland.

She was speaking last week at the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, during the launch of a DVD promoting sign language as an effective tool in acquiring and understanding language during the critical period from birth to the age of three.

Called 'Signing Family', the DVD encourages the use of sign language bilingualism in families with either a deaf parent or a deaf child.

Janet said that attempts to normalise deafness through medical treatment, hours of speech therapy and lip-reading simply did not enable deaf people to lead full and satisfying lives.

A recent study reported that just 16% of hearing mothers and 13% of hearing fathers used sign language to communicate with their deaf children.

And further studies suggest that, as they grow older, deaf children of hearing parents can be like foreigners in the home, cut off from the normal access to conversation that helps develop confident and well rounded personalities.

It is estimated there are 4,500 sign language users in Northern Ireland and that 1,500 parents of deaf children could benefit from the DVD.

The anomaly of the situation (and there is world-wide consistency on this) is that nine out of 10 deaf children are born to hearing families with no knowledge of deafness and baffled by their inability to communicate.

The DVD stresses the importance of catching the child's attention, especially in those early months and years when the child is full of wide- eyed wonder and the brain is developing faster than at any other time in its life.

Natural language will increase the bond with the child, but how is this to be achieved? Babies love to babble before they learn to speak. Can we stimulate this development by gesture and sign language?

Deaf children of deaf parents have a wonderful advantage here as they have almost immediate rapport with their parents from the day they were born, and communication progresses naturally from childish babbling to structured sentences in either sign or English.

Janet Young speaks from experience here as her parents are both deaf and she grew up in this environment.

Early language development led to an early interest in reading, and she is a passionate believer in the value of bilingualism in the education of deaf children.

But hearing parents don't have this advantage and I am not sure if the values advocated in the DVD will appeal to them.

Such parents are more likely to be attracted to other means of communication, such as provided by the new and effective digital hearing aids.

Plus, the growing number of cochlear implants would suggest that parents are looking for a medical solution to the problem of deafness - not what some might regard as a palliation.

I had a brief conversation with Bencie Woll, chair of sign language and deaf studies at University College, London, and she told me that in England the number of special schools continues to decline and even deaf parents are enrolling their deaf children in mainstream schools, with interpreter support if appropriate.

Nobody is questioning the value of early and good communication during the formative years of a deaf child's life, but parents are not convinced that sign language on its own is the most effective way of achieving this.

© 2006 Independent News and Media (NI)
a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd