Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why Are We All So Scared?

About 10 years ago......

One reoccurring theme we encountered going to workshops and panels was an underling fear of the unknown. Parents seemed horrified that their children couldn't function in the world without speech and yet we knew there were many deaf adults who did just that. They didn't ask how the deaf population navigated daily tasks but searched frantically to find ways for their children to fit into their hearing lives.

We really wanted a deaf mentor and the district was baffled by this request. They wanted to help us but were not set up for this service. We found that the simplest request was always resolved with complicated watered down versions. They didn't have anyone on staff qualified for this position and they told us in order to have this service it had to be a district employee. We were told we didn't need this service because we had made deaf friends but I explained that we didn't want to ask those friends the kinds of questions we were curious about. We needed a guide that could answer the most basic questions without us feeling awkward and invasive. The first candidates they offered as deaf were people that didn't depend on ASL or hearing people who promised to voice off with us. The problem there is after a short time we would stop signing. They didn't give us a clear picture of what our son would look like as an adult.

After a bit of frustration we ended up with 2 awesome deaf adult mentors. One was hired on by the school district at our request. He was a college student who would later teach at the local charter school. We also had a young woman who worked as a office clerk at district offices.

Looking back I am struck by how nervous we were. At a first meeting with the student I watch every movement of his hands for fear I would miss something. At one point he gestured towards his nose and I was lost. I stopped him to inquire what that meant. Uh, he was itching his nose. Right, note to self, relax. He told us of his childhood and education. He revealed many frustrations he overcome dealing with hearing people. We used this information to help us define a parenting style.

The next goal was to get out in the world and learn how deaf people negotiate the daily tasks we take for granted. At the time we were curious about the most simple things. My son will laugh at this because he has no idea how clueless we were. Our other mentor went shopping with us to the little produce markets in our neighborhood. These shops were small and run by families often who spoke English as a second language. The owners were a bit grouchy but my son loved to go there. There was a well known restaurant with a bakery that gave free cookies to children and he would run to the counter every time waiting for this treat. This sort of adventure always included us talking and interpreting for him.

We first went a produce store. As we walked down the street we chatted. She was so confident and didn't notice people starring at us. I asked her about that and she said it happens all of the time and she doesn't pay attention. We entered the crowded shop and as she bent over to look at something she bumped into a woman behind her whom she didn't see with her bag. The woman said something rude and on impulse I started to intervene but was able to hold myself back and watch. The mentor had no idea what had happened, didn't hear the comment and just continued on her way. She paid by looking at the readout on the register. Well that was easy. Next we went to order lunch from a deli. Again I had the impulse to interpret. Again I held back and watched. She indicated she was deaf and showed the cashier she wanted to write a note. She wrote her order. Easy. She wanted a straw and made a gesture the cashier understood. Done, again easy. Every place we went she made it so clear there was no issue. Over time we learned about interpreters, ASL etiquette and deaf culture. It wasn't a long time but it set us up with tools which made it so much easier and relaxing to parent our son. The one element of this service that made it work was the mentors were deaf and used ASL to communicate.

Around the age of three we started having him order for himself by pointing. We taught him how to pay in stores.

Today .....

I am always shocked at peoples reactions to my son. When we go out for pizza it is his job to get the box for leftovers. If a hearing person is with us they almost always leap up to help him. I always stop them. They always look shocked when he comes back with a box.

At one parent workshop at the deaf school a mother of a thirteen year old who was very ASL was surprised to hear my son orders for himself at restaurants. She realized she had never let her son do that and felt bad. She also never had any sort of deaf mentor.

At the same workshop I was so sad when I had to interpret for a 10 year old who was asking her dad for some cake.

We still are grateful for our deaf friends and their willingness to help us. So many times I have asked questions and asked for guidance. We are not deaf but with a little help we have found a way to live as a happy deaf/hearing family. With a little help we live without fear of the unknown.


  1. There are many in the Deaf community who would love to reach out to parents. The Rochester School for the Deaf has programs where parents are connected to other parents. Some schools have PTAs where parents can meet Deaf parents.

    Perhaps a moderated or membership listserv that connects Deaf adults with new parents? A worthwhile idea.

  2. I agree Dianrez but the problem is getting the parents to get the courage to join. Or maybe getting district programs to get the parents to meet deaf people first. I have to admit we where nervous about a world we didn't know. It took courage for us to venture to the point of just meeting our mentors. Why is that? I am hoping we can look deep and see why hearing people are not lead in a comfortable way to helping their deaf kids.

  3. The issue of a lot of deaf children not aware of many things, or how they work, and relationships outside the deaf area are a moot point. Far too often deaf schools operate as a 'seperate' and closeted area from the mainstream, with 'occasional' interactions with hearing elsewhere...

    Children need to get out there as quickly as they are able to be on level terms. The issue is 'mentors' (Let's call them interpreters basically), will inform them in more detail what goes on, what we see is not always what we perceive as accurate. OK seeing ISN'T always believing ! first impressions are not always the right ones.

    I recall a 'test' done in the UK some years ago, "Who understood people's faces and manner more accurately ? Deaf people ? or Hearing people?"

    The result put deaf a definite SECOND..... Let's not underestimate hearing people's ability of the eye and body language! Perhaps we aren't as 'aware' as we make out... I hate the term 'Mentors' anyway, another image of 'carers', 'helpers' 'support staff', in the UK you cannot work in that capacity with deaf without police investigating your background first.

    This is right where children are concerned, BUT, adults are not getting that protection, all you need to work with vulnerable deaf adults, is the barest smattering of 'BSL', and the dubious groups offering these services ? CHARITIES ! They offer care support too with little basic qualifications...sign has replaced nursing ability !