Yesterday I was sitting in my car ready to pick up my son from school. I saw him across the street chatting with a friend. She was telling him about her martial arts class. Then they joked as they waited for the light to change so they could cross the street. A fire engine raced by blocking my view for a moment blaring an ear shattering wail. He is deaf, she is hearing. She has been studying ASL since September. He has been using ASL to freely communicate for over 12 years. I know she is a first year student because the conversation is peppered with a lot of fingerspelling. I know she has a desire to learn ASL because of the speed and fluency of her signing. It is hard work to learn a new language but this kid is motivated. She seems so comfortable. That is not the case with many parents I meet.
As I sat there I remembered the day I was sitting with a friend as a fire engine passed and my sweet little baby didn't flinch at the noise of a siren. I remember later his first audiologist telling me that with practice he could maybe hear a fire engine. I remember how terrified I was. I remember how lost I felt. There wasn't clear cut option to follow. It felt like the world didn't really care about our family at times.
Yesterday I just felt calm and a bit in awe at how easy it is for my son to navigate and enjoy the world. I sat there and remembered how hard it was when we first ventured out. I remember that the idea we would be working to hear a fire engine just wasn't good enough. I am also looking back and thinking how funny that is. My son can see the signals at the crosswalk. He is not going to jump in front of an emergency vehicle because he can't hear it. I also marvel at how the world comes to him. Instead of him struggling to talk to this friend she is working hard to sign to him.
Often people just assume he is just a really smart exception. Often they don't care how he got to this point. When my son was very small we decided to follow research that suggested a first native naturally aquired language would be the best course for our son. We were so excited to get going then realized folks just were not ready for us. In theory everyone was on board but they didn't have the resources to really help us because we were the minority and the system wasn't set up for families like us. We were surrounded by hearing professionals with years of experience with families different from us.
A lot of people suggest families should do what we did. What I know to be true is it is a path laden with obstacles. Everyone was so excited when they saw we were signing with Haddy. It pretty much stopped there. The system in place only supported sign language as a backup tool to use in order to support hearing. The idea that we needed full immersion to be successful was not on the radar.
So when people blame families for not using ASL as a first language they are really aiming at the wrong target in my opinion. It is so difficult to get support I am not surprised we are a rare find. We had to do a lot of the work ourselves.
First consider the parents. If you have never met a deaf person you are a deer in headlights when the professional gives you the news your child is deaf. At this point you need support.
We were lucky Haddy was our first child. Imagine if the child is third in birth order. Taking care of a newborn child is exhausting. Being the responsible parent to the other children makes the task more difficult. How do you get the whole family to voice off at dinner when you are just learning labels? What if there is a "sign" class available but it only services the baby sign crowd? What about the parent who has never met a deaf person who signs or if they have they felt awkward? The professionals you meet first are all hearing maybe. So where is the example of a positive outcome?
In our society most families need two incomes. That takes time away from parenting. Some parents don't have the socio-economic resources to independently research options. It takes time to try everything and sign language is perceived as something you do if everything else fails.
Even if a parent chooses our approach they needed access to language fluent environments constantly. I noticed most hearing early intervention specialists have a hard time turning their voices of with non ASL fluent parents even when that is the objective. You learn faster with immersion. Sometimes that is not comfortable. Teaching a child to speak is in the parent's control. By learning another language you are shifting the control. That can be scary. You have to trust people who live in a different culture. You may be told about dismal outcomes for deaf children. You also have to immerse your child in visual language which can take away from other approaches.
There are other reasons I believe that influence parents. It is important to consider geography, culture, available resources, critical mass and the fact that we are a consumer driven society. It is very complicated from my perspective. I could go on forever and I probably will.