This morning our local School for the Deaf and Blind held a conference for parents of hearing impaired children. The keynote speaker at the conference was Rachel Coleman, creator of Signing Time. She has two children with disabilities and shared some excellent insights with those of us in attendance. She spoke and answered questions for over an hour and half. And my wife even got to help perform one of the songs from the series with her on stage.
The first thing she spoke about was that it is vital that regardless of a child's disabilities that they learn a language. There is a short window when a child is young that language acquisition is easiest. Once that window closes, it's much more difficult for the child to learn to communicate. However, when she says language, Ms. Coleman doesn't necessarily mean spoken communication. She refers to oral speech as a skill. And skills can be learned later. She advocates that children can learn American Sign Language and begin using it as early at as early as 6 to 9 months of age. Then actual speech can be learned when the child is ready. Speech is not hampered by signing, in fact studies have shown the opposite to be true. Many children who pick up signing speak sooner and have larger vocabularies than those who don't. So point one is get the child a language then worry about speech later. And don't worry that signing will delay or prohibit speech.
Point number two is also very insightful and important, especially for the deaf community to hear. That is, cochlear implants and signing are not mutually exclusive. Ms. Coleman described the process she and her husband went through to learn sign and teach it to their daughter Leah. This process brought about the Signing Time series and took Rachel on tour around the country. One day at a convention she had a conversation with a cochlear implant specialist that took her opinion of them from a fairly negative place to a more neutral one. As a result she and her husband approached Leah about it and let her decide. Leah was excited about it and asked when she could get hers. About a year ago she recieved her cochlear implant. Rachel says it's been a big help, but that it worked for Leah because she had ASL first. Ms. Coleman says her daughter will always be deaf and that the implant is merely another tool that allows her to get the most out of life. It doesn't define who Leah is or change her even though she can now plug her iPod directly into her implant and enjoy her favorite music. So signing and cochlear implants are not at odds with one another, but can actually compliment eachother in giving a hearing impaired child the best shot at communicating.
Lastly, she made a point that my wife and I feel strongly about as well. That is, don't let specialists dictate what your child can or can't do. You know your child best and it's up to you to help them reach their full potential. This is an excellent point and one that shouldn't be lost among all the medical opinions that parents of disabled children get bombarded with.
My thanks to Rachel Coleman for taking the time to share her knowledge and inspiration with a small group of parents on a Saturday morning. She even autographed a picture for my daughter who spends at least an hour in front of Signing Time every day. If you're interested in seeing Signing Time for yourself check your local PBS station's schedule. It's broadcast in many markets around the US.