I was born in a small town. And I live in a small town. Oh those small communities.*
Okay, so my town may not be Mayberry; we do actually have modern conveniences like electricity and cable TV. But how do you find the best resources when the nearest deaf “person” is your neighbor’s 15-year-old dog?
For my family, living in a rural area is great—lots of grass, plenty of cows, a close-knit community. But when we discovered our son is deaf, we were so thankful that we live just outside of Rochester, a city with a well-known Deaf community. Still, 40 miles to NTID, and almost 60 miles to Rochester School for the Deaf seemed like light years away when it came to connecting with people and resources.
An hour or longer bus ride to school every day was not something we wanted to pursue for our then-18-month-old child. We loved the idea of him being surrounded by other kids like him, but we were also not willing to give up our son to a residential school at this age. Fortunately, we have a wonderful preschool in our town that integrates special needs of all types with typically developing children, and even better for us, is funded by Early Intervention and school taxes. This school offers the personalized attention my son needs, as well as visual communication via ASL and Cued Speech. But currently, my son is one of only four deaf students there. Despite the benefits and opportunities we have locally through this school, we found many of the Deaf resources lacking, particularly in the beginning of our journey.
Some of this is in hindsight for me, but I hope it can benefit other hearing parents of deaf children: Early Intervention is required to present you with the option of having a Teacher of the Deaf come to your house and help teach you sign language. Since we initially chose Cued Speech as our primary means of communication, we didn’t think it was necessary to become fluent in ASL. My son’s speech therapist taught us a lot of ASL signs, but we never took advantage of the opportunity to also have a ToD. That option is available, free of charge, to all families, even those who live out in the boonies.
The second source of ASL instruction that we discovered locally is through classes at our community college. Three years ago, I incorrectly assumed that taking courses at a college would be expensive, something not covered by Early Intervention, and something we couldn’t afford. I learned later that many colleges, especially community colleges, allow family members of deaf children to audit ASL classes—to fully participate in the classes, but not for course credit, so there is no charge. For us, still, there was the issue of logistics in being able to attend these courses, as my husband works 10 hours a day, and I am at home with two kids. For this reason, I stress the importance of the ToD even more.
Then comes self-study. While sub-optimal, this is where we began to focus most of our ASL efforts. The Internet has helped us tremendously, with sites like Signing Savvy, ASL Pro, ASLU, and ASL Browser. But while Internet videos can teach you vocabulary, they’re not very helpful with learning grammar, sentence structure, the intricacies of facial expression, or Deaf Culture (like you would in an actual ASL college class). Plus, there are so many regional signs, it is difficult from the Internet to decide which sign to use or which signs are more prevalent in your geographical area.
Bottom line, I recommend a combination of the Internet, college classes, and a local Teacher of the Deaf. Also, don’t let the fear of finances negatively affect your decisions for your children; Early Intervention and local school taxes have covered all of the services for my son, and will continue to provide him with a transliterator and speech therapy as he continues through school. Finally, my tax dollars are working for me.
And as a bonus, if it’s possible, it’s probably best to learn ASL hands-on from actual groups of people that are part of Deaf culture. For us, this has been a struggle, living so close, but so far away, from Rochester and a strong Deaf community. Those events and groups we have sought out sometimes result in discouragement and judgment because we chose a cochlear implant for our son, and because we use Cued Speech. My advice with that is to try not to get discouraged, and just keep reaching out to people until someone accepts you and sees it as an opportunity to help, educate, and offer support, rather than an opportunity to criticize. Deaf topics can become very polarizing issues (if you don’t know this yet, you will!), and while some people may reject you for differing opinions, that’s their issue and there’s nothing you can do about it except move on and find people who are more tolerant and accepting. My son enjoys and benefits from being around other deaf children; if we lived closer to the city, we would be able to expose him to even more. Not everyone has full access to the best possible scenarios, but it is still feasible to teach your child based on the resources available to you.
In our area, Cued Speech is also quite prevalent, though not in the local ASL Deaf Community. Nazareth College in Rochester is well-known for its Deaf Studies, Speech-Language Pathology, and Cued Speech education. The local preschool my son attends also uses this method of communication with a variety of students, from deaf and hard of hearing, to children with apraxia, autism, and Down Syndrome. So for my family, finding accessibility to Cued Speech was easier. Nazareth College also hosts Cue Camps during the summer for families to attend a fun and educational weekend-long event, learning the entire Cued Speech system. It’s also a great resource for meeting other hearing families with deaf children, and meeting other cuers. Cue Camps can be found around the country, and details and videos of Cued Speech can be found, among other places, at The National Cued Speech Association.
I’ve addressed the benefits of Cued Speech in other articles, so I won’t delve into much of that here, but I will say, from an accessibility standpoint, it was much easier for us to learn the entire Cued Speech system than it would be for us to become fluent in ASL. Parents in rural areas, as well as those in cities, even those with established Deaf Communities, would benefit from exploring all these options for their deaf children, keeping in mind, as we have learned, that there’s no need to choose just one form of communication. Children with cochlear implants should still learn ASL. Children without cochlear implants can still use Cued Speech as their sole form of communication.
Geographical limitations to accessibility of information make it more difficult, though certainly not impossible, for hearing parents to gain all the information they need. Online resources can help you every time you ask “What’s the sign for …?” Online research can lead you to real-life local people. The Internet is your friend. Scour. Read. Learn.