This is an interesting question that has been asked very publicly since The Silent Child. This was a short film that was launched in 2017 and went on to win an Academy Award on 4 March 2018.
The film featured Libby (Maisie Sly), a four-year-old profoundly deaf girl. She lives a ‘silent life’ until she meets a social worker who teaches her sign language. This opens her up to a whole new world of communication.
Is this normal?
It’s easy to assume that this is an unusual situation and that parents would naturally learn sign language on the birth of a deaf child; but that’s not always the case.
I was 13 when my cousin Max was born profoundly deaf. It was a given that his parents would learn sign language. Their primary focus was to make sure that they could all communicate. It was not a decision they actively made. Just seemed the obvious action to take.
Based on this experience, I believed that it was ‘the norm’ that all parents of deaf children used sign language to communicate with their deaf child.
The bigger picture
It was only when I started to work at the British Deaf Association (BDA) that I began to understand the bigger picture.
At the BDA, I worked in a deaf and hearing team and learnt a great deal about deaf people. My deaf colleagues shared stories that had a common factor – a lack of engagement with family.
I grew up in a family where we all learnt sign language to communicate with Max. Even my Grandad learnt a few signs! For me, the idea of my colleagues not being able to talk with their parents or siblings was quite shocking.
It became quite apparent that my colleagues’ parents did not learn sign language. This made it difficult to form the strong relationships often built through communication.
When a baby is born, a Newborn Hearing Screening test is carried out. This test identifies whether a baby has some level of hearing loss. It happens before the family is discharged from hospital.
The scheme was introduced by the NHS in 1999. With the aim of “giving these babies a better chance of developing language, speech, and communication skills” to “make the most of relationships with their family or carers from an early age.”
There has however been an unforeseen consequence. Once a child is diagnosed as deaf, they receive support from medical staff. The medical viewpoint is to attempt to ‘fix the problem’ using hearing aids or Cochlear Implants. Parents are not given clear advice about the bigger picture whilst these options are being shared.
Parents at this point are seeking as much information as possible. They are trying to understand what needs their baby will have moving forward. Enabling them to make informed decisions that will benefit both them and their child throughout their life.
These informed decisions help lead to deaf children growing up in families who understand their needs.