Each year four to five of every 1,000 babies born in Canada are diagnosed with hearing loss or deafness. Find out what type of communication options are available for families with deaf or hard of hearing children.
“When our baby girl was diagnosed with deafness, so many things went through our mind,” says Courtney Vondette whose daughter, Chanel, was diagnosed with profound hearing loss at the age of 10 months. “As a hearing and speaking family, we were challenged with deciding on what type of communication method would be best for us.”
Like Courtney, many parents of children diagnosed with a hearing loss often feel confused and unsure about how to communicate with their child. It’s okay and extremely common to worry and wonder whether the communication method you choose is the “right” one. But is there just one “right” form of communication for deaf and hard of hearing children?
According to Dr. Noreen Simmons, Executive Director of BC Family Hearing Resource Society in Surrey, BC, the answer is no. “The days when just one form of communication was available to deaf and hard of hearing children and their families are behind us,” says Dr. Simmons. “Every child is unique and may benefit from more than one mode of communication at different periods during his or her language development. At our Centre we embrace best practice approaches that encourage the use of whatever communication system is necessary for the child to be a successful communicator. It may include either one mode or a combination of different modes such as speech, sign supported speech, sign language, fingerspelling and the use of listening skills.”
Communication choices often reflect a family’s communication goals. When a family’s language used in the home is a spoken language (not signed), the goal is often for the baby with hearing loss to use what hearing she has and learn to talk. The family will then use special strategies that stimulate spoken language development to strengthen the baby’s listening skills. Other families choose a bilingual/bicultural approach where children learn the language, culture and traditions of people using sign language as well as those who use spoken language.
You may be wondering about which method of delivering language is best for your baby. It is important to learn as much as you can about the different approaches. “Choose what you feel is best based on what you know about your baby’s needs, what your specialist recommends, and what you observe works well,” adds Dr. Simmons. “Basically, families choose to communicate by speaking, signing or some combination of both.”
Auditory-Verbal and Auditory-Oral Methods
The most common approaches to using only spoken language with deaf or hard of hearing children are the Auditory-Verbal and Auditory-Oral methods. Both approaches emphasize developing spoken language through listening. Hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive listening devices are used and early intervention is focussed on auditory stimulation and making sounds meaningful. An Auditory-Verbal approach to developing spoken language emphasizes strengthening the auditory channel through listening only – before any visual information is presented. The Auditory-Oral method also incorporates visual cues such as speech reading.
Sign Language is a true language. It is a recognized, real language that has its own rules and endless possibilities, just like any other language. Sign Languages are different all over the world. American Sign Language (ASL) is often used in North America; it is possible to communicate anything in ASL that can be communicated in English. ASL has many unique characteristics and language rules that are not present in English. Body language and facial expressions are important features of ASL.
Sign-Supported Speech and Language
Research indicates that using signs to support speech and language does not hinder communication development and may stimulate spoken language development. Many children benefit from visual language support, especially when a hearing device isn’t used consistently or when there are concerns about communication development. Signs that support spoken language development are often a “bridge” to completely oral communication, or are used as a “back-up” in certain situations – in difficult listening environments and when the hearing device is not in use. Sign-supported speech is an approach used at BC Family Hearing Resource Society when there is evidence that using signs to complement spoken language is advantageous for the child’s development. Sign supported speech is also used when there are concerns about progress after using only spoken language approaches, over a reasonable period of time.
Whether your child will learn more effectively through speech, sign or a combination of speech and sign depends on facts that are unique to each child and family. “Some families choose to emphasize both sign language and speech because they want their child to have the opportunity to communicate in a variety of way in order to achieve maximum potential,” says Dr. Simmons. “If you’re frequently evaluating how your child is learning to communicate – and in what ways he’s best able to communicate – then you have the advantage of making appropriate decisions for your child according to his current learning abilities.”
Dr. Simmons recommends a collaborative approach to decision making. “If a parent has questions or concerns about the best method of communication with their child, it is best discussed with someone who has experience in communicating with deaf and hard of hearing individuals, such as teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing, speech-language pathologists, auditory verbal therapists, audiologists and parents of deaf or hard of hearing children.”
Courtney and her family chose a total communication approach for her family. After five years of auditory verbal therapy, deaf mentorship and sign language instruction through BC Family Hearing Resource Society, Courtney and her family consider themselves a bilingual/bicultural family. “Chanel has a rich language foundation. She wears a cochlear implant, so she can hear and speak and has age-appropriate language skills. But she can also communicate non-verbally through sign language, and continues to learn about Deaf culture. I guess you can say right now she has the best of both worlds.”
For more tips about communicating with deaf and hard of hearing babies, toddlers and preschoolers, please visit bcfamilyhearing.com/my-turn-to-learn/