• Nancy Koziol

Should My Child Learn ASL if They Wear Hearing Aids?

The topic of who should learn American Sign Language (ASL) is a sensitive one. That said, it’s easiest to make a decision when you have all of the information. In this post, we’re looking at the facts and considerations spanning this issue including those of identity.

What is ASL?

American Sign Language is a language that uses signs made with the hands, and an alphabet spelled with the fingers. It has its own grammatical structure and is not universal. While used by the deaf community, others use ASL including people with hearing loss.

Using ASL with Children with Hearing Loss

If a very young child, one who has not developed language skills, is diagnosed with hearing loss ASL can offer assistance in language development. ASL requires both the parent and child looking at each other and teaches important fundamentals of communication. Many parents of normal-hearing children use ASL before oral language develops and many say their child developed excellent spoken language skills. There is no proof that signing has damaged a child’s ability to speak.

Another reason some use signing with young children with hearing aids is that they will have times when they cannot wear their hearing aids. If the hearing aids need a long repair, the child has certain ear infections or the hearing aid is out (say for swimming), signing using ASL or Signed English can be a handy way to continue communication.

Additionally, hearing aids are, by nature, assistive devices. There are times when they aren’t enough. For example, hearing aids are meant to help with limited background noise and close-proximity. At a concert or sporting event, party or even loud restaurant, amusement park or countless other places, it could be difficult for a child to hear. Think of how noisy even an airplane is! At these times, signing can be very helpful.

Identity Issues

Deafness is a major part of some people’s identity. Children with profound hearing loss, thus, might identify as deaf. In order to be a part of this world, the child must be able to speak ASL. Of course, if the child is living in a hearing family, there is another question of identity: that of the other family members.

ASL is not easy to learn. It’s not a question of direct translation from English to sign. Instead, it has a unique grammatical structure and requires study. It’s no easier for English-speaking normal-hearing people to learn than a spoken foreign language like French or German.

Many normal-hearing parents who have a child with hearing loss struggle with the diagnosis at first. They mourn the normal-hearing child they thought they had and often view the diagnosis as a disability. They are learning about hearing aids, audiologists, special accommodations for schooling and navigating something new. Adding to this learning a new language is daunting. Just as the child may identify as deaf, the parents identify as normal-hearing.

Because of this, many families choose to use signs while speaking but not learn full ASL. This enables the child to be exposed to both. It is called “Signed English” A child who chooses to identify as deaf and use ASL may use both with their parents, signed English and speech, but use ASL with deaf friends. In the case where a child uses ASL, families will usually learn and use the language. But at first, it can be daunting in light of all of the other things that come with a diagnosis.

Reframing the Question: Communication Should be at the Forefront

The adaptation of language—be it using speech, Signed English, ASL or a combination—is highly personal and unique to each situation. It is important that the conversation is had and that the child has ownership and decision-making powers for how they will self-identify and the language they will use. Most children with hearing aids will use speech but the addition of signing can be helpful in the event they are without hearing aids or in a situation where their hearing aids aren’t doing the trick. When it comes to identity, a child may wish to develop relationships within the deaf community, in which case they will learn ASL.

In addition to the importance of identity: parents must consider the child’s ability to communicate effectively. If a child is frustrated and throwing tantrums regularly, is the issue that they are having difficulty communicating orally? In this case, Signed English or ASL may help. If a child is resistant to signing and only wants to use speech, parents must listen to the child’s needs.

This is a complex, highly personal issue that should be navigated as a family, including input from the child’s medical professionals and with the child’s needs and wants at the forefront.

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