By Mary Bernard
The Sunday pool gathering at the Pomroys’ home in Bucks County, Pa, looked like countless others. The parents sat around a table, chatting. The kids jumped in the water, screaming down the water slide, gleefully ignoring the grownups.
The adults, not surprisingly, were talking about the kids. But their conversation would have puzzled many parents.
“Have you all heard of the rule of nine?” Pat Pomroy, grandmother to two deaf children, asked the group. Pat, 69, demonstrated what she had recently learned in an American Sign Language conversation class, showing how a single sign can take the place of two when referring to certain phrases involving numbers under 10.
The information cleared up what had been a mystery to them: why their children seemed to skip signs when talking about their age or the time.
“These are the things you don’t learn in some of the classes, and this is what’s frustrating,” said John Collins, whose daughter, Grace Collins Alicea, is deaf and uses a cochlear implant.
When Collins adopted Grace, speech pathologists told him that learning ASL would inhibit her ability to speak, a widespread belief that research has disproven.
Collins, 48, decided to learn sign language alongside Grace, 6. He has her name, finger-spelled in ASL, tattooed down one leg. On the other, he has the word ‘love,’ also finger-spelled.
Grace is also gravitating toward spoken language, affirming what the pool gathering parents all believe: Helping their deaf children to embrace deaf culture by learning ASL does not mean they will reject the hearing world, or miss out on opportunity.
“At the heart of who we are as people is our language,” said Sister Kathleen Schipani, the Director of the Deaf Apostolate, an organisation in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that caters to the deaf community. “So, at the heart of the deaf community is sign language.”
And as challenging as it is to learn a new language as an adult, the parents are doing their best, convinced that it is the best way to support their children.
“The most successful deaf people are those whose families learn sign language because then they’re connected with their families and connected with the community,” Schipani said. “When their families do not know sign language, it’s a very difficult way of growing up.”
Gatherings like these are fun for the kids, and crucial for adults who might otherwise feel alone in their efforts.
According to the 2010 American Community Survey, in the United States, fewer than 1 percent of people under the age of 25 reports being deaf or hard of hearing. Statistics on the total number of Americans who use sign language vary widely, but there appear to be at least half a million users.
“For so many families, the first deaf person they meet is their own child,” said Meg Santoro, Director for early intervention at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. “That can feel isolating sometimes.”
However, it’s important to the families that their children grow up in a language-rich environment and have access to good education.
“No matter what, they have to live in a hearing world,” said Pomroy’s daughter Theresa, 48, who is the children’s aunt. “I don’t believe they’re naturally at a deficit, but not educating them would be the deficit.”
When Kristen Dieffenbacher was 5, a new child joined her class. He, like her, was deaf. But unlike Dieffenbacher, this child knew ASL. Dieffenbacher, who relied on lip reading and speech, started to pick up some signs, and the teacher alerted her parents. After consulting with a doctor, her parents made the decision to separate the two children.
“They were afraid I would stop talking and that I would gravitate to sign language,” said Dieffenbacher, who is now 30. Dieffenbacher speaks well, although sometimes, she said, people ask her where she’s from, confusing her slight speech impediment for an accent. Until college, Dieffenbacher stayed away from ASL.
“I was brainwashed into thinking we were somehow better than the people that do sign language,” Dieffenbacher said.
Eventually, she realised that not knowing ASL was the real impediment. Now fluent in ASL, she works at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.
Because she learned ASL later in life, she doesn’t completely consider herself a part of the deaf community. Though many members of the community capitalise the word deaf when referencing community, rather than the medical condition, it is lower-cased here for consistency.
Dieffenbacher’s family doesn’t use ASL. At large family gatherings she finds herself left out of the conversation because lip-reading requires one-on-one communication.
“When I started learning sign language, I felt even more disconnected with the hearing world, and I started to transfer into the deaf world,” Dieffenbacher said. “I still feel like I’m in the middle between the deaf world and the hearing world.”
If she were raising a deaf child, she would follow her parents’ example only partly.
“If I had a deaf kid, I would get them a cochlear implant and I would teach them sign language at the same time,” Dieffenbacher said. “I want the child to be able to make a decision about which they prefer. I don’t want them to miss out on both worlds.”
In the Pomroy household, everyone, to some extent, knows how to sign. Both Robert, 12, and his sister Rachael, 9, have been deaf since birth. Their mother, Pat’s daughter-in-law, is deaf, but Pat gained custody four years ago because of the parents’ drug addiction.
Pomroy teaches a weekly ASL class at her house for friends and family.
“You just need to communicate, no matter how you do it,” she said. “Older people like me are so focused on how perfect it has to be, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. I’ve learned not to overthink it.”
At first, Pomroy said, “my fingers just wouldn’t work.” So she started practising whenever she could. Even now, when sitting in traffic, she spells out street signs and billboards.
Sometimes she has to remind hearing family members to sign while they talk so Robert and Rachael are always included.
But, for the most part, “they’re treated no differently than anybody else,” their grandmother said.
Because some hard-of-hearing children have the opportunity to get cochlear implants early on, many parents delay the use of sign language to determine the success of the implants, Schipani said. As a result, the parents also delay early acquisition of language.
“I think there’s been a very damaging notion put forth that there is a single path, a single method to language acquisition,” Neil McDevitt, Executive Director of the Deaf Hearing Communication Center, said in an e-mail. Born hard of hearing and now almost entirely deaf, McDevitt has used both spoken and signed language since pre-school.
Exposure to language from a young age is important to brain development, Santoro said. Deaf infants can experience language deprivation simply because they cannot hear the language around them.
Melissa Draganac-Hawk, PSD’s director of student affairs, is deaf, as are both of her parents. Her son, 14, is hearing. Far from the fear that learning ASL will alienate a deaf child from the hearing world, her experience is that when hearing family members don’t learn ASL, they can drive their children away.
“I’ve seen deaf children at school who don’t want to go home on Friday afternoon and they come in Monday morning thrilled to be back at school,” Draganac-Hawk said.
For deaf children to be best supported, they should not be limited to a single method of communication from birth, McDevitt said.
“In my view, the most important thing is to use every single option available to you, to discover what works best, and then to keep all of those options open to you as they grow,” McDevitt said in the email. Being deaf “is a rich and meaningful experience. There are significant challenges we face, but the richness of the culture and the community we have, for all of its challenges, is equal to what we see in other cultures.” – The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
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