Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I wish I'd seen the beauty of sign language years ago

By Louise Kinross

Last night was fun. I got to tell a story in American Sign Language (ASL) about a funny incident that happened when I was a teen. I was doing a test for a sign language course and we had to to tell a story about growing up. 

Mine involved my 16-year old self, my best friend, a bottle of rum that our old babysitter bought for us, and an encounter with the police late at night as we lay on the grass looking up at the stars.

In preparing for it I got to look up many signs on Handspeak, which is a wonderful site where you can watch video clips of different signs.

I also typed out my story, but in the word order that is used in American Sign Language (ASL), which differs from English.

When my son was young, I tied myself up in knots over whether to use signs in English or ASL word order.

"ASL is a language completely separate and distinct from English," according to this description from the National Institutes on Deafness and other Communication Disorders. "It contains all the fundamental features of languageit has its own rules for pronunciation, word order and complex grammar."

Instead of recognizing the beauty of ASL as a rich language that stands on its own, I was always translating signs into English and then fretting that it wasn't "proper English." How would this affect my son?

So, for example, to ask someone's name in sign language, you use signs that translate as "You name what?"

We ended up using ASL signs, but in English word order because we were also speaking at the same time we were signing.

This meant we were never fully immersed in ASL and deaf culture. 

We were, as they say, sitting on the fence.

I think this happens to a lot of families when their kids with disabilities are young. They are bombarded with different therapies, techniques and approaches and advice from professionals and other parents and just about anyone on the street who will chime in to give their opinion.

What if I make the wrong decision? What's the right decision? 

Meanwhile, all those years ago, in terms of communication, I was conflicted about whether we should use sign at all. It isn't generally recommended by therapists who prescribe augmentative communication (voice devices, picture boards etc). "No one in the community will be able to understand him," I was told.

And it wasn't something that my son naturally took to because of his weak fine motor skills. On the other hand, most of the "words" my one-year-old daughter had were signs she'd learned from us signing to our son.

When we were out and about I felt self-conscious about signing. I wanted to blend in like the rest of the young families in our neighbourhood. I still "cared" about what other people thought of me (ha ha, how times have changed).

We tried to do everything: sign, pictures, a voice device, years of speech therapy. 

There are so many value judgments about all of these things, and even value judgments about approaches within each area. 

Of course speech is the most highly prized, which can push parents like myself to pursue it for years and years, even though the child is not showing any functional gains (or maybe that was just me, maybe I just didn't see the light).

My son has chosen sign language as being the mode of communication he's most comfortable with, and that is most efficient. He's still limited in what he can express because of his fine motor issues, which means we can't get a really rich understanding of his thoughts. But it is his language. 

A few months ago a person who's helping us with life planning suggested that we needed to get on board with sign language in a bigger way. I think she was surprised at just how little signing my husband and I did (and our other kids, despite going to sign language camp for years, do none. It had stopped being "cool").

So my husband and I took a course and a couple of our workers did too (when our son was very young, we'd gone to an immersion program and also had weekly lessons from a tutor).

I adored my sign language teacher this time around. 

She told the most amazing stories that always had us in stitches. Part of it was how visual and dramatic sign language is. It's so much more than hand signs, it's facial expressions and body movements and sounds. It's often like theatre.

I began to see how full and fun this language was.

The other day we went by our favourite party shop and my son was very upset to see a sign that said the store was moving.

He was looking in the window when one of the staff came out. She recognized him as he loves costume gloves and has bought many pairs there. They were selling everything at half price before their move, and she said she'd found a box of gloves in the basement that she wanted him to have.

This was like Christmas for our son.

But what was so interesting to me was after we left, he signed: "New building where?"

He was asking me where the new store would be located.

What stunned me was his use of the sign for "building," which I hadn't seen for years.

In the last couple of months, since we've begun consistently signing with him, he's starting to string more signs together in a sentence, and to surprise us with signs. 

In the past, we've often expected him to express himself in silent sign while we, and everyone else around him, "talk, talk, talk." 

Now I realize that we weren't entering fully into communication with him. We weren't giving him the message that sign language was this rich, credible language that was worth using. We kind of expected him to use it as a default, while we never learned more than the basics (which spoke volumes), and kept on chattering.

I'm excited about where things may go from here.


I'm glad you had this revelation! I use sign language and frankly, it'd be lonely if nobody else in my family did too....

I've heard the arguments that not everyone in the community will be able to understand someone if they use ASL as their main form of communication... but to me, I think the most important thing is giving a child SOME way of communicating, at least with the people in his everyday life, Being unable to communicate with the guy in the drive through window at McDonalds is not nearly as hard as being unable to communicate with your family, friends, teachers, etc. I think you were smart to try to use many different ways of communication, so that your son essentially had a choice in what worked best for him. I would love to learn more ASL too!