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Why Don't Some Hearing Parents of Deaf Children Use Sign Language?

Some Parents Do Not (and Perhaps Will Not Ever) Use Sign Language

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Updated April 26, 2009

Sometimes, hearing parents do not learn sign language to communicate with their deaf children, even when sign language is the child's primary means of communication. Or, if they do learn it, their mastering of it is minimal. These parents may have their reasons for not learning sign language or becoming fluent in it. However, the resulting communication gap has been known to harm both familial relations and academic progress of deaf children.

This scenario was even the theme of an out-of-print children's book, Dina, the Deaf Dinosaur. In Dina, forest animals discover a crying deaf dinosaur. She ran away from home because her parents did not want her to learn sign language.

A related question was posted to the About.com Deafness Forum:

"One thing I keep seeing repeated is the statement that "many parents won't learn sign language." Why would a parent refuse to learn sign language to communicate with their own deaf child if sign language is a primary means of communication for that child?" --About.com User

Several forum users responded, giving examples from their or others' experiences:

"I had a deaf friend. Her father tried to learn sign, her mother refused. My friend did not learn ASL until she was 14 and even then, the friend who taught her [how to sign] had to do so in secrecy. My friend grew up very angry and hostile. Some parents, like my friend's mom, may feel guilt for creating a flawed child and learning sign would reinforce the guilt." --skwish

"As an educational interpreter and a family member of deaf people, I have seen that when a parent finds out their child is deaf, they are shocked and dumbfounded. They do not know what to do. Then the first person they come into contact with is usually a doctor. The doctor is well meaning, but only looks at the child as a medical model. This means the child has a problem that needs to be fixed. The parents want a child like themselves. They have had no experience with the deaf community." -- eduterp00

"I am a deaf education teacher. We have 17 students. Out of all those parents, none are deaf and only one family signs. The family that signs [belongs to] our only student that is on grade level in all subjects. We have a teacher that works with the family. We offer free sign classes year round. We send home sign dictionaries and signs for words that the students use in class. Still, the parents continue to ignore our pleas to learn how to communicate with their children. It breaks my heart [to hear] some of the things parents have asked me to do, such as "explain to my daughter why she started bleeding last night." --9nyfan

"There could be several reasons for hearing parents of deaf kids not learning ASL. One is that they just don't get it that deafness is not just the physical inability to hear, but that it involves a communication problem as well. Most hearing parents don't have any experience with deafness, and many in the medical field tell them to try to 'fix' their child. Another reason could be that they don't see learning ASL as a need-to-do thing. They work too many hours to devote time to learning, or they just flat out don't want to learn. Another reason could be that they are embarrassed to use signs in public. Perhaps the hearing parents think they can't learn ASL. The truth is that they can. They don't have to be interpreters, just learn ASL for communication purposes. "--flyinghands

"When I worked as an interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing, I would hear that it was hard enough having a deaf child, do we have to learn sign also? Some think it's too hard to learn or [they are] just too busy. " --dragonkpr

"When my son lost his hearing, the first thing I thought was, how am I going to finish potty training him if we can't communicate? I took sign language classes as soon as I could. I soon found out that there are a lot of parents who don't learn sign language. I just can't imagine not being able to communicate life to my son. If you can't communicate with your child, how can you parent to the best of your ability. My son had a friend in school whose parent hasn't learned sign language. She was always saying that she needed to learn sign language, but never did. She always told me that her son was having discipline problems at home. I told her frankly that if she didn't learn sign language, she was going to lose her son." --signmom98

"I have seen deaf children who are needlessly lacking a language. Children who come into the school system with no communication skills, no basic understanding of life around them. Many not even able to answer a simple yes or no question, or know the names of their parents or siblings. The parent's excuse for their lack of language or communication? The top reasons given are usually, 'Oh, he/she understands us at home,' 'He/she can hear more than he lets on,' 'We really want him/her to learn to talk,' 'Our doctor/audiologist/SLP told us not to,' 'It's hard to learn sign language,' 'I don't have time to take any classes,' the list goes on and on. Then the parents lament about how their child is so far behind and blame the deafness - or the professionals working with them, never what they themselves are or aren't doing!" -- codacat

"Growing up, my best friend had a progressive hearing loss and wanted to learn sign language. Her parents wouldn't hear of it! They were too embarrassed and told her she could hear 'well enough' and needed to speak, and that sign language would only cause her to weaken her vocal skills. Together we began sign classes on the sly. Of course, we eventually got caught and she was so severely punished that she never learned another sign. Ironically, I continued studying and became an interpreter." - About.com User

"I have seen several deaf families where the deaf person is the only one in the household that knows sign language. In all cases but one, there is just a general lack of communication and there are very few attempts at actual communication. When asked why ASL was not learned, the replies are the same: They always meant to learn and wanted to learn ASL but never did. In one case, I witnessed something amazing. The family claims that they 'don't need' sign language to communicate, but can't ask the deaf person how their day was." -- About.com User

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