My daughter Sarah, who is 4 years old, was born profoundly Deaf. She communicates using American Sign Language, but is also a typically developing toddler who does the same kinds of things that all toddlers do. Throughout the past four years I have learned that there are some misconceptions about Deaf children, so I’ve put together this list to help people understand Sarah and other children like her.
It is important to mention that no two children or families are alike, and what might be true for Sarah might not be accurate for another child who is Deaf. I hope the following points will allow you to get a glimpse into our world, which in many ways probably looks quite similar to yours.
1. Sarah is a “normal” 4-year-old.
Sarah loves going to the playground, visiting the B and O Train Museum, swimming and camping with her daddy, visiting her aunt in New York City, and seeing all of her grandparents. When asked what her favorite foods are, she says that candy and ice cream are tied for that distinction. She is opinionated, empathic, loving, and very curious about the world around her. Sarah loves to read and write and jump and run. Do you know a toddler who has similar attributes? You probably do.
2. Terminology Matters.
“Deaf” or “hard of hearing”? It took a long time for us to understand the various terms and we are still learning. According to researcher Mark Marschark, “Most commonly ‘Deaf’ is used as an adjective, referring to deaf people who see themselves as part of a community bound together by a common culture and, most often, a common language—ASL.” However, the uncapitalized form of “deaf” is now mainly used to refer only to a lack of hearing. Many deaf people actually don’t like the term “deafness” because it has a connotation of pathology.
What’s more, Sarah does not have a “hearing impairment.” This term is still sometimes used but as the online guide Resources for Mainstream Programs explains,“Many individuals dislike the term ‘hearing impairment’ because it describes deaf people based on what they cannot do.”
The current terms in use by the deaf community today are deaf and hard of hearing.
3. Sarah doesn’t need to be “fixed.”
Every once in a while, when our family tells someone that Sarah is Deaf, the response will be, “I am sorry.” There is no reason to be sorry. Sarah is perfect as she is and does not need to be changed in any way. Every person has something—or many things—that make them unique. Sarah isn’t losing or missing out on anything. The majority of society might be hearing, but that doesn’t mean that hearing people are smarter, happier, leading more productive lives, falling in love easier, or are more intelligent than Deaf or HOH people.
4. Not all Deaf people wear hearing aids.
Some people who are Deaf wear hearing aids but they aren’t appropriate or necessary for all people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. When Sarah was born she was fitted for hearing aids and wore them for several months until we found out that her cochleas were not fully formed and that she didn’t have an auditory nerve, so the hearing aids were not beneficial to her.
5. American Sign Language is her language.
Your child might communicate in English or Hebrew. Sarah communicates in American Sign Language. Everyone is Sarah’s life communicates with her—and around her—in ASL. Sarah also attends the Maryland School for the Deaf in Columbia, MD, and is taught by Deaf teachers and highly proficient hearing teachers. Sarah has babysitters who communicate with her in ASL and we also make sure that Sarah has an interpreter when she attends events, like Shabbat get-togethers in our community and soccer lessons.
6. Sarah can read and write.
You might ask how this can happen if Sarah doesn’t hear words on the page in front of her. Well, there are various practices, which have been identified based on research examining deaf parents and deaf teachers reading to their deaf children. Some include keeping both English and ASL visible so the book is placed in front of her and she can see parents/teachers/friends signing and the book at the same time. Discussing in depth the illustrations of the story also helps connect concepts in the story to the real world.
7. She can’t read lips…yet.
Many people ask if Sarah reads lips. Speech reading is a skill that she will develop over time. Though Sarah will learn this skill, research also indicates that approximately only 30% (or less) of what the speaker says can be accessed through lip reading.
8. Sarah contains multiple identities, just like everyone else.
Sarah cannot be categorized or neatly explained by labels or terminology—no person can. Sarah is Deaf but she is also a Jewish American and even those terms do not begin to explain her identity. At 4 years old, Sarah’s identity is perpetually evolving.
9. Sarah’s deafness makes our family special.
Though adapting to a new culture, learning a different language, and having a different life from the one we might have envisioned is challenging at times, it has also given us so much beauty. We have been exposed to things that we never would have known existed and we have the opportunity to teach and learn from other people.
I believe that the universe is looking out for us. I cannot even count the times when I have walked somewhere with my daughter and connected with someone who knows sign language for various reasons, who has some connection to our world. That is a blessing. I am forever grateful because I know that my daughter has given us what we didn’t know we always needed.