To sign or not to sign? That’s the question facing deaf children

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    Sophie and her mom Samantha Zawislak. (Elizabeth Fiedler/WHYY)

    Sophie and her mom Samantha Zawislak. (Elizabeth Fiedler/WHYY)

    The invention of cochlear implants and other technologies have given many deaf and hard-of-hearing adults and children the option to hear. What, then, becomes of sign language?

    When the world gets too loud—because of fireworks, or just to take a quiet break on the weekends—8-year-old Sophie knows what to do.

    “When it’s really loud, I just take the magnet off,” she says.

    She’s deaf and has had a cochlear implant that’s helped her hear since she was a year old. But she knows by moving that magnet she can stop the device from bringing her sound.

    More than 1 in 500 children in the United States is born deaf or hard of hearing, making it the most common congenital sensory problem in the country. Technological advances, like Sophie’s cochlear implants, now give many children the ability to hear and communicate with spoken English from the time they are babies.

    Sitting next to her on the couch in their living room, Sophie’s mom Samantha Zawislak says getting her daughter a cochlear implant, which requires surgery, was a difficult decision.

    “We didn’t ever want our daughter to think that she’s broken or not complete somehow,” Zawislak says. “[But] There is this really neat technology that if you’re the appropriate candidate and if you do it soon enough, children who are deaf have access to sound and can use their voice if they choose to speak.”

    Sign language is a vital means of communication for many members of the deaf and hard of hearing communities. Sophie can hear now and make her own decisions about how to communicate. Even though her parents sign to her, Sophie responds to them in spoken English. When her mom asks why, Sophie explains that they can hear, so she wants to speak. Zawislak says she wants her daughter, who attends the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, to have the power to define her own identity.

    “Ultimately at the end of the day that child’s going to grow up and find out who they are, and it might be hearing, it might be deaf,” she reasons. “And we have chosen to accept that Sophie already identifies as being deaf and we’re comfortable with with, she wants to go to the deaf university, to Gallaudet and we’re very proud of that.”

    Children who are deaf learn, without sign language

    Other children who are deaf, or hard of hearing, are on a different educational path, where sign language is much less visible. At the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, which has five locations across the country, all of the students use sound amplification devices, including cochlear implants and hearing aids. Clarke School teaches listening and spoken language, but not sign language. Instead, they learn to listen and speak, with the goal of succeeding in mainstream classrooms alongside their typically hearing peers.

    Caroline Linz’ 7-year-old son Teddy was born deaf, and he uses cochlear implants.

    “We’ve always raised Teddy the same way that we have with all of our children,” says Linz.

    Teddy does not know sign language, neither does his family. Linz says at 6 he started mainstream schooling, after going to the Clarke School.

    “Sign language is a beautiful language,” Linz explains, “[but] for our family, we felt that the listening and spoken language was what we wanted for our child. The communication that we have in our family is spoken language—it’s not sign language—and, for us, we felt that that bond and that communication was important.”

    She thinks often about how his life would be different if he’s been born a decade or two ago ago, and she thinks about the role that technology plays in his life now.

    “In addition to his cochlear implant, he has an FM system which he uses at school,” Linz continues, “which is a way for the teacher to speak directly into his implant, so it blocks out all the peripheral sounds.”

    That helps him focus—even if another kid’s making noise or somebody moves their chair with a loud squeak. There are more promises on the tech horizon as well, including even smaller, less visible technology, so that one day you could be speaking with a person who is deaf and have no visible indication they’re using a device to hear.

    Sign language as identity

    Still, some in the deaf community emphasize the importance of sign language.

    Sign language is Ron Burdett’s primary means of communication. He doesn’t have a cochlear implant, and he says sign language is part of his identity.

    “I’m very proud of deaf culture, deaf history. My parents are deaf. The day that I was born I was able to communicate without a struggle,” says Burdett.

    Burdett believes American Sign Language (ASL) helps build identity and self-esteem for children who are deaf.

    “You can communicate a variety of topics: math, science, history, art, culture, there’s no limitation to what you can communicate about in sign language,” he says, “and parents nowadays have realized that sign language is a real independent language that comes with its own culture.”

    Burdett says he does not think ASL will decline as technology improves. He says things like Facetime and the prevalence of video can help people learn sign language. Other technology supports the use of signed language, like gloves that translate sign language into text and speech. One of the University of Washington students who created them said they’re lightweight and ergonomic enough to use everyday, similar to hearing aids or contact lenses.

    Role models show the possibilities

    Back in Sophie’s living room, the 8 year old is talking about Nyle DiMarco, a model whose appearance on the television show Dancing With The Stars, helped make him a role model for many kids who are deaf. When asked about his performance on the popular TV show, she smiled and responded, “I think it was cool.”

    To give viewers who traditional hearing a glimpse into how difficult it is to dance with no music to help keep the beat, Dancing With The Stars producers cut the music a minute into one of DiMarco’s routines. He kept dancing, moving his arms and legs moved in sync with a group of other performers dressed in dark jackets and pants. For a few very long seconds, DiMarco was up on stage dancing in total silence. The emotional performance brought one judge to tears.

    Nyle DiMarco doesn’t have cochlear implants and advocates for deaf children to get greater access to sign language, and in this community, DiMarco is a big deal. And for Sophie, and other kids who are deaf or hard of hearing, role models like DiMarco show the abundance of choices that exist for people who are deaf.

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