Sign Language for Parents

If you are the parent of a child who has just been identified as deaf or hard of hearing, you probably have a lot of questions.  What will my child’s life be like?  How will this affect our family?  How will we communicate?

The deaf community is comprised of the adult children of parents like you – loving, concerned individuals who want the best for their child.  While members of the deaf community have varied backgrounds and experiences, they are drawn together by their use of American Sign Language (ASL), the value they place on visual communication, and their shared experiences.  Some deaf individuals have used sign language from birth, while others learned it as a child or even an adult.

As a young child, your child is at an optimum time to learn sign language.  Research shows that with language and communication, earlier is better.  There are many tools to help children and their families learn sign language.

You can request American Sign Language instruction from your child’s early intervention system.  Early intervention systems are designed to help your child develop in all areas.  These systems also are designed to provide services to families so that families can support their child.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that governs early intervention, requires these systems to provide sign language services1 for families who choose sign language.  The law intends for teachers of the deaf to be included as service providers in early intervention services.2  If you wish for your child and family – even extended family members – to learn sign language, you can request these services from your early intervention provider.

Technology can help many families learn to sign.  The Internet offers many signing web sites, and many families benefit from using books and videos.  Some libraries carry collections of sign language materials.

There may be deaf community events in your community that you and your family can participate in.  Contact us for NAD affiliates in your area.  Many families appreciate the opportunity to meet deaf adults, learn from their experiences, and practice signing.  Deaf adults can help answer many of your questions and give you tips on how to make communication easier in your home.

Recently it has become popular to use American Sign Language with hearing babies.  Researchers have found that it promotes earlier language development in these babies.  Some communities have sign classes for families with hearing children, and many Internet resources for this purpose are available.  In addition, many elementary schools now teach sign language, and many high schools offer ASL classes for foreign language credit.  This move toward bilingualism benefits both deaf and hearing people.

Some parents have been told that if their child signs s/he will not learn to speak.  Research shows that signing does not interfere with speech, and in fact, expressive language ability, including sign language ability, is a significant predictor of speech.3  Some parents of children with a cochlear implant have been told that they should not sign with their child.  Again, there is nothing about signing that interferes with the use of a cochlear implant, and signing with a child who has a cochlear implant may help his/her speech ability.4  Some parents have been told that since their child has some hearing, s/he will not “need” sign language.  Actually, there is no harm in signing with your child, and many individuals with residual hearing communicate both through sign language and through speech.

Learning to sign does take commitment, practice, and time.  Many hearing parents do become proficient or fluent.  Do not be afraid to start learning.  Good communication, starting as early as possible, will enhance your relationship with your child throughout your lives.

1 20 U.S.C. § 1432(1)(E)(iii).

2 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 Conference Report 108-779, p. 236.

3 Yoshinaga-Itano, C. & Sedey, A. (2000). Early Speech Development in Children Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: Interrelationships with Language and Hearing. The Volta Review, Vol. 100(5), 181-211.

4 Marschark, M., Lang, H., & Albertini, J. (2002). Educating Deaf Students: From Research to Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.