This is an interesting question that has been asked very publicly since The Silent Child was launched in 2017 and went on to win an Academy Award on 4 March 2018.
The short film featured Libby (Maisie Sly), a four-year-old profoundly deaf girl who lives a ‘silent life’ until she meets a social worker who teaches her sign language and opens her up to a whole new world of communication.
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’ll take you back to when I was 13 and my cousin Max was born profoundly deaf. It was a given that his parents would learn sign language – as they wanted to ensure smooth communication in the family. It was not a decision they actively made; but it just seemed the obvious action to take.
This gave me the belief that it was ‘the norm’ and all parents of deaf children used sign language to communicate with their deaf child.
It was 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. From the experiences my deaf colleagues shared it appeared there was a common factor in their stories – a lack of engagement with family.
As you can imagine, growing up in a family where we all learnt sign language to communicate with Max (even my Grandad learnt a few signs!), 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. Which meant it was difficult to form the strong relationships often built through communication.
Newborn Hearing Screening tests are conducted once the baby has been born; and before the family is discharged from hospital.
First introduced by the NHS in 1999 it was hoped it would “give 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.”
One of the consequences of this has been that, once a child has been diagnosed as deaf, they receive support from medical staff; which will usually involve attempting to ‘fix the medical problem’ using hearing aids or Cochlear Implants. However, there is a real lack of information and support about communication choices.
Yet, it’s likely this is what parents are really looking for. To get an understanding of what needs their baby will have moving forward; so they can make informed decisions that will benefit both them and their child early on.
These informed decisions help lead to deaf children growing up in families who understand their needs.