Monday, December 28, 2009

A Thought On Relatives

I saw a great comment on my Silent Night post. The question was,

"How do you deal with the extended family not signing?"

That is a very important question that I Think all hearing/ASL parents think about. Not only family but close friends that don't sign. I haven't thought in depth about this topic in awhile but I can share some rambling ideas off the top of my head.

I like to stand back and look at the big picture. I have relatives I never see and that is fine with me. As we grow older we can pick who we have relationships with. You can't force people to learn anything. I used to feel frustrated and sad but really now it isn't a big deal. All of the family that we do see has taken at least one class. The reality is they don't have people they see often enough to practice with. I taught myself Japanese when I worked at a sushi restaurant about 20 years ago. I got some books and practiced at work and became conversational. Now I could maybe say "I am sorry" in that language. It is very hard to maintain fluency if you don't use it often.

Now if we saw the whole family often I would be frustrated. For example if they saw him once a week. When he was really little we solved the problem by hosting a sign brunch every Sunday at our house. A lot of people don't learn well from videos and are too intimidated to go to a class. We were frustrated they weren't learning. We realized they wanted to learn but needed help. We had a full spread of food, only friends and family and a Deaf teacher. In this comfortable environment they were able to really learn.

Sometimes just giving folks and opportunity to sink or swim helps. We allowed my son to visit his grandparent's house without us since he was very little. They are not fluent in ASL. This helped them all bond and made it easier for the grandparents to learn how to communicate. You know how it is easier to learn ASL if you are forced to sign with a deaf person? Well without us there to act as the go between they got on board faster and they found ways to communicate. I felt safe because they raised my husband and he turned out fine. As a result of this trust and time spent together they are very close.

This also forced him to start to learn how to get by in the hearing world without assistance. I knew he was in a safe environment so I felt comfortable. I am always amazed at how they understand each other. I think it has helped him become the independent kid he is.

I wish we had all the tech tools back then that we have now. I would had loved to have Skype and VP. Hearing relatives can Skype deaf children. I remember every now and then I would get a call asking what my son was trying to say. It would have been so easy if we had Skype. Best of all Skype is free.

Another thing we do is not always interpret our conversations. What I mean is if I am chatting with just my son I don't feel I need to make everyone comfortable by telling them what we are saying. It is so interesting how awkward folks get when we do that. It helps them understand more what is at stake. Some people tell me it is rude. It is like whispering in front of them. Well does that mean the majority of the world is whispering in front of my son? If someone has had the opportunity to learn to sign and chose not that is fine but it is hard for me to talk and sign. I don't feel I need to do that all the time. I interpret for my son's benefit not for the comfort of others.

At our home he has full access to communication. If visitors don't sign and have known him a long time I don't force him to socialize. We know a family that has tried to learn to sign. The mother can pretty much communicate but the kids don't even try. My son doesn't really want to hang out with them and I understand why. The only thing they would do is read all of his comics. At their house they don't really include him. They are the sweetest kids but it just doesn't work out well. My friend was a bit upset when I let him go to his room the last time they came to visit. I have avoided that conversation in the past but she seemed really insulted. I told her the truth. She said he could always write notes. I responded then that is how we all will communicate. I told her that if he was going to do that we should too that way we would understand how he felt. I just think in his own home he should have the right to free communication. If the children had learned to sign or tried harder to include him in the past I would have probably made him come out and entertain them.

So a final thought is really how does he feel? We left Christmas Eve all feeling great. He had an awesome time. I don't resent that we have to interpret. Of course it is a bit more work but not that much. I don't really have to do much work in his life because he is Deaf so interpreting for family don't cause any burden. He always loves it when the whole family is together so there really isn't a reason for me to have negative feelings. When we first were getting started everything was so raw and I would get so frustrated. Now I have mellowed and found that if I approach people with empathy things work out better.

So I don't really have the answers. I find my family does better at this stage of the game if I don't worry about what others choose to do. Life is too much fun to waste time on things I can't change. I do however strongly advocate when someone is paid to educate my son and change is needed. That is a whole other story.

1 comment:

  1. Mel, I just found this post. This is a very, very common problem with many hearing families of deaf children and your approach is the best I've seen.

    I'm a deaf adult who was raised in an environment similar to the environment you are providing for your son - my entire immediate family signed (not ASL, back then it was SEE, but at least it was access). But very few people outside my family learned to sign, just a couple of relatives. Those relatives are still my closest relatives today.

    My method of coping with those extended family get-togethers was to burrow up in some corner with a book. Now that I'm an adult, that's no longer considered acceptable behavior, ha. The time that you and your relatives' have invested in learning ASL to communicate with your son now will continue to pay off handsomely for many years.

    On a general note, I've been so impressed by your blog. You offer a valuable viewpoint as a hearing parent who "gets" what your son needs at a much earlier point in his life than most hearing parents do (if ever). If more parents were like you, our community would be so much stronger with many more examples of deaf adults leading highly successful lives.

    I'm especially interested in your experiences with deaf mentors. As a deaf adult who is involved in advocacy efforts, it's very hard for me to find hearing families who would benefit from deaf mentors, mainly for data privacy reasons. I recently learned that my state has a deaf mentor program, but it is not at all publicized within our community and nobody seems to know anything about it. My understanding is that it's primarily for teaching ASL and to be sought out and requested by families. Very passive rather than proactive.

    I hope you will continue to post about your thoughts and experiences with hearing families and deaf mentors. Your experiences help us understand hearing parents better, and maybe that'll help us build more bridges to bypass or break through the medical-view philosophies that so often dominate EHDI programs.