If you see my family, three things stand out immediately:
- We are a bi-racial family. (My husband is Caucasian, I am Mexican, and our kids are Ethiopian.)
- My husband and I are in our mid-twenties and have a teenager and a nine-year old.
- My 14-year old son is profoundly deaf and we use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate.
And six months ago, he had a vocabulary of 25 signs.
Levi grew up in Ethiopia with no education and no formal language. I mean, NONE. Can you imagine being locked inside yourself in a world of silence? Not being able to communicate with others? Not being able to tell them how you feel or what you want? Not understanding what people want of you? Not understanding when people laugh at a joke? Not knowing your siblings' names? That's just part of what Levi lived with for 14 years. And it's a wonder he didn't lose his mind and become a frustrated, violent mess. And probably why he signs 24/7 now.
When we met Levi on our court trip, he had about 25 "home signs", which are signs he had invented as a system of communicating with his caretakers and friends. He had just started going to a deaf school in Addis, and was learning some Ethiopian sign language. Between learning Levi's home signs, teaching him some of ours (I am an ASL-English interpreter), and gesturing, the three of us were able to communicate at a basic level immediately.
When Levi and Zahria (his biological sister) came home in November, 2012, they could not communicate with each other at all. Six months later, I couldn't get them to stop talking (signing) if I tried. Zahria actually said the other day: "Mommy, before in Ethiopia, me and Levi no can talk. None. Me don't know him. Now us talk all da time!!!" Here is a video of them: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RDNx47pXv8
By the world's standards, Levi is "disabled." “Disabled” implies that something is wrong with him. I don't consider him disabled; he just can't hear. He functions as a normal teenager and basically the only differences are that we use ASL to communicate, and we need interpreters for public events, appointments, etc. Minor adjustments are also that instead of calling Levi's name to get his attention, we wave, or tap him on the shoulder, or flash a light switch so that he turns to face us.
Maybe right about now you're thinking, "Hey Marissa, that's cool that you know ASL and have a Deaf son, but I don't know any sign language and that's scary!"
It's totally scary! But it's okay! Not knowing sign language should NOT stop you from considering a deaf child. While both parents knowing ASL would be ideal, it's not the only option. If you are truly willing to learn to sign and communicate with your deaf child, and provide them the resources where THEY can learn to sign or communicate with their mode of preference (sign, sign and speech, oral only, etc.), then perfection doesn't matter. Effort and willingness are the keys. 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents and those parents didn't know sign when their kids were born. You can do this!
Not all deaf people are the same. That seems obvious, but what I mean is that deaf people do not all identify themselves the same, and they use different modes of communication, depending on their personal preference. The two main categories are: Deaf (viewing themselves as a cultural minority and using American Sign Language to communicate), and hard-of-hearing or hearing impaired (using spoken English and or a mixture of spoken and signed English or ASL). People with a cultural view use a capital "D" to define themselves as Deaf. Deaf/hard-of-hearing people also have a range of hearing loss. Levi is 80 and 90db. Basically, a rock concert sounds like a whisper to him.
There are lots of resources for families with deaf children, although they vary depending on the area. Each state typically has one school for the deaf, and that would be the best place to get resources in your specific area. Schools for the deaf typically provide sign language classes, a schedule of deaf events in their area, audiology and speech therapy, hearing aid repairs and resources, sports/recreation, as well as education in a signed environment. Example: www.rsdeaf.org
Another resource for communication between Deaf and hearing individuals is a videophone. If I am away from the house, I could call Levi on my phone, using a video relay service with interpreters. www.sorensonvrs.com
There are also multiple online stores that sell devices such as flashing doorbells and vibrating alarm clocks, and other devices designed for deaf/hard-of-hearing people. http://store.hdscenter.org/
Language resources are available too, with websites showing videos of single signs and concepts in ASL (although they do not teach sentence structure, syntax, or grammar). I also have a YouTube page where I post videos of specific signs to help our family communicate with Levi.
ASL Dictionary: www.aslpro.com
ASL Dictionary: www.lifeprint.com
My YouTube page: http://www.youtube.com/user/SignLanguageBasics
If you are considering a deaf child, or just want to ask questions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to talk with you!