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Building Communication With A Deaf Child

sign-language-lessons-deaf-children-nyc-1Picture this: you are a little kid growing up, constantly discovering incredible new things about the world. Now imagine being surrounded every day by people who do not talk to you, tell you stories, or answer your millions of questions. These people are your own parents and siblings. You all live in the same home, yet they hardly communicate with you. They are not able to teach you, guide you, or to provide comforting words when you need them. In fact, they mostly avoid you. This is the experience of many deaf children.

sign-language-lessons-deaf-children-nyc-2For a hearing parent, learning that your baby is deaf might be a bit of a shock. Confusion is a common response, given our society’s unfortunate lack of understanding about deaf culture. Excited new parents are delivered the news by medical professionals in a sobering way. Hearing a doctor imply that your child is disabled is almost guaranteed to stir up some panic!

sign-language-lessons-deaf-children-nyc-3Communication With A Deaf Child

So, instead of accepting the perfect gift they have been given and embracing the opportunity to explore deaf communication, hearing parents might immediately label their beautiful deaf newborn as defective. They might hunt for a way to “fix” their baby, or try teaching their child to communicate using sound like “normal” people. Or maybe they simply abandon hope that they’ll ever be able to relate to their deaf child at all. This truly breaks my heart.

sign-language-lessons-deaf-children-nyc-4 Let me tell you a personal anecdote. Last year, I hired interpreters for a large family gathering because my mother and siblings are all deaf, while my mother’s family is hearing. Being a CODA, I have served as the “interpreter” for many many family events. Finally, I decided to enlist the help of some professionals so I could just relax and enjoy the party.

sign-language-lessons-deaf-children-nyc-5Throughout the evening, it was moving to witness the interactions between my deaf family and my hearing family using the interpreters. Never before had they been able to experience each other in such a way! With two neutral, professional interpreters relaying even the littlest bits of small talk, we were all able to participate in conversations equally. I saw my hearing aunts really getting to know my deaf nieces for the first time. Almost every member of my family raved about how amazing it was to have interpreters. Every family member, except one.

Growing up the only deaf person in your household can be extremely isolating. If your family chooses not to learn sign language, it is hard to express yourself comfortably. For my mother, the opportunity to communicate with her parents and siblings just felt like it came too late. After a lifetime of feeling excluded from your own family, believing they never really got to know you, how do you make up for lost time? What is there to talk about?

When my mother was growing up, there weren’t many resources for raising deaf children and interpreting was only a developing field. Of course she appreciated the fact that I hired interpreters for our family event but… after decades of not communicating, forming a connection is not so simple. All children want to feel like they belong in their own family and a lifetime of feeling marginalized can’t just be erased. Certainly not in one evening.

sign-language-lessons-deaf-children-nyc-6Deafness doesn’t have to be isolating. Since I was raised in a deaf family, I can tell you: deafness is nothing to be afraid of! The ability to hear sound is not what makes a person whole. It is not what gives a person their personality. The ability to hear sound is not what determines a person’s intelligence, and it doesn’t have to limit one’s life. Perhaps not enough hearing people take note of the deaf community members living happy lives around them. There are plenty of successful business owners, artists, and athletes who use sign language to communicate.

There are few things more bonding than learning a language together. Discovering sign language with your deaf infant promises both of you a richer life and a closer relationship. By accepting your child’s abilities and taking the time to access their world from a young age, you also give them access to yours. You will be able to share stories and jokes, and get to know each other. It is more intuitive for deaf babies to learn a physical language, than one which relies on sound. When deaf individuals are not struggling to live a hearing lifestyle in their own home, they can focus on growing in other areas.

Sign language is the most natural form of communication for deaf people around the globe. Research has shown that in any society where there is a concentration of deafness, signed languages have developed. Humans have a strong desire to express ourselves– relationships form and strengthen through communication. For deaf children, having parents and siblings to use sign language with can truly mean the world. Because, when you are a kid, your family IS your whole world.


I have 10 years experience working with toddlers and I am professionally certified in all levels of ASL, including baby signs. I am thrilled to offer ASL baby sign language lessons for parents! Babies, whether deaf or hearing, are able to express themselves as early as 6 months using signs. Being able to communicate from a young age boosts confidence and builds self-esteem in children. Sign language also aids in cognitive development and have been shown to improve a child’s ability to acquire other languages.

Sign Language lessons make the perfect gift for new mothers or mothers-to-be! In celebration of Mother’s Day, I am running a special on one-to-one ASL training: 2 one-hour lessons for $99. My private lessons provide not only sign language training, but insight into cultural norms and deaf history, as well. Lessons are customized to fit your skill level and learning style, and can be scheduled at your own convenience! We can meet in person, in the NYC area, or remotely via video chat. 

 I AM RUNNING A TWITTER CONTEST THIS WEEK! ONE LUCKY PERSON WINS A FREE ASL LESSON. Keep it for yourself or give it as a gift! CLICK HERE  FOR MORE DETAILS. The winners will be announced on Friday May 9. ENTER TO WIN!

Deaf Culture in Hollywood

Think about the last five movies you saw. Were there any deaf individuals in them? When was the last time you saw a deaf weather person delivering the forecast? It is estimated that nearly 20% of Americans live with some form of hearing loss, yet deaf and hard of hearing society members remain oppressed by mainstream culture.

Deaf people may be quiet, but they are certainly not invisible.

National Association for the DeafLast week, I had the pleasure of attending the first ever NAD Breakthrough Awards Gala in Hollywood. Throughout the evening, we celebrated the past, present, and future of deaf issues in cinema and TV. I had privilege of sharing a room with some of the most prominent deaf figures in popular culture. This landmark event was held as a benefit for the National Association for the Deaf — the oldest civil rights organization in the United States.

Marlee Matlin & Lydia Callis

The gala was filled with so many people whom I admire for their passion and dedication to their work– actors, writers, and musicians who have paved the way toward deaf/ HoH representation in the media. The past few years have been notable for an increase in deaf visibility, due in part to the breakthrough success of the ABC Family drama Switched at Birth. The show was acknowledged a number of times at the Gala for not only featuring deaf actors and actresses, but for bringing real Deaf culture issues to mainstream audiences.

Marlee Matlin is perhaps the most well known deaf actress in Hollywood; she was the youngest person to win an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Children of a Lesser God. When it came out in 1986, it was the first movie since the silent film era to feature a deaf actor as a lead character. Can you believe that Hollywood completely overlooked the possibility of deaf film and movie stars for over 50 years? Matlin proved to Hollywood that deafness does not make a character un-relatable for hearing audiences. On the contrary, Matlin opened people’s eyes to the wide range of engaging characters deaf actors can portray.

Deaf audianceThese days, Hollywood is slowly recognizing the possibility of powerful deaf/ HoH characters. Deaf actors like Katie Leclerc and Sean Berdy, who play lead roles in Switched at Birth; and Shoshonnah Stern, who had recurring roles on Fox’s Lie To Me and Showtime’s Weeds, are getting the prominent parts they deserve. Audiences are finally getting a taste of sign language communication and casting diversity. Even reality TV is starting to feature deaf individuals, for example: Project Runway contestant Justin LeBlanc; Luke Adams, who teamed up with his hearing mother to compete in several seasons of The Amazing Race; and deaf Chopped contender Kurt “The Irish Chef” Ramborger.

Deaf influence in Hollywood reaches behind the lens of the camera, as well. Bernard Bragg was recognized at the NAD Gala for co-founding the National Theater of the Deaf, which has worked toward quality training for deaf performers. No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie premiered in 2013 as the first commercial feature in American history with an exclusively deaf executive producer team and deaf director. Deaf film companies such as ASL Films and Rustic Lantern Films are empowering creative deaf cinematographers to pursue their visions. D-PAN (Deaf Professional Artists Network) has worked to organize and provide a platform for deaf artists of all types. Engaging young deaf people in the media revolution is critical to the movements’ long-term success. Camp Mark Seven, a camp in upstate for NY for deaf youths, has started a film program for aspiring filmmakers 13-16.At the Gala, the word of the night was Breakthrough. We were celebrating those who have smashed through the oppressive barriers of perception to demonstrate that differently abled people are limited more by society than their individual “disabilities.” This is not just true of the entertainment industry; we are seeing deaf empowerment in a number of cultural outlets.

Sean Forbes NAD Breakthrough Awards Gala WCSPZuJHHqXl

Sean Forbes, deaf rapper and D-Pan co-founder, closed out the NAD Gala with his signature fully-accessible musical performance. Only a few months ago Derrick Coleman, the first deaf offensive player in the NFL, made headlines all over the country when his team went to the Superbowl. Deaf since birth, Gregory Hlibok became the first disabled head of the Federal Communication Commission’s Disability Rights Office in 2011. And of course let us not forget the incredible Claudia Gordon, the first deaf African American female lawyer, who has become the first deaf individual appointed to the White House as the Public Engagement Advisor for the Disability Community in the Office of Public Engagement.

Claudia Gordon & Lydia Callis at the NAD Awards Gala 2014

These are only a few of the most visible figures smashing through barriers and silencing doubters. There are many more out there, and the numbers grow each day. Still, it is not enough! Deaf kids need deaf role models, and hearing audiences are more than ready for complex deaf characters. Hollywood, and our society at large, need to stop reinforcing a tired status quo. Until we see a deaf Late Night host, or Oscar award winning deaf director, or a proudly Deaf United States president, we can not claim to live in a society of equal representation. As long as ASL is considered a foreign language in America, we still have work to do!

Deafness in the Media

Picture yourself as a child, watching television and absorbing how the world works through modern media. Imagine that none of the people you see reporting news, advertising products, or acting in sitcoms are like you. They don’t speak your language or have the same mannerisms; they don’t even have any friends who are like you! Yet this is what society considers normal. TV only seems to refer to you in the context of being “disabled,” but you don’t feel handicapped at all. You can do anything you want except hear!

deaf-child-nycFrom a young age, deaf individuals receive many conflicting messages about who they are and where they fit into society. Deaf America has had a rocky relationship with the media because deafness is still an anomaly to the hearing people who write, direct, and produce most popular programming. It is so rare to see an accurate depiction of a deaf character, that it seems like the people who script TV shows do not even have deaf friends or family members from which they can draw reference. On the chance we do encounter an honest televised glimpse into the world of Deaf culture, it is applauded with a standing ovation, because the silent world of ASL is captivating, for deaf and hearing alike!

switched-at-birth-deafThe success of ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” has me feeling very encouraged about the direction of Deafness and pop culture. The television program centers around deaf characters, and recently aired an “All ASL” episode (with static subtitles), which was well-received by general audiences. Although the show is a TV drama, so not true-to-life by virtue, I think it’s extremely refreshing to see deaf actors and actresses, and hope the inclusion of deaf characters expands into other prime time programs.

deaf-celebritiesDeaf culture is alive and well in America, but for so many years it went unnoticed because it’s silent. I can tell you now, my deaf family members are some of the most chatty people you’ll meet! What the telephone and radio did for hearing communication, text messaging and social media have done for deaf communications. No longer are we living separated by languages, not when we have instant access to so much knowledge. On the Internet, deaf individuals can “shout” as loudly as hearing people can! We can all can voice opinions via blogs or video– connecting as a larger culture, without the inconvenience of a communication barrier.

deaf-ladies-nycAs technology evolves, the Deaf are being seen and “heard” more than ever before!  In my experience, hearing people are very receptive to Deaf culture once they understand that it is it’s own awesome subset of American culture. Most clashing comes from ignorance and misunderstanding, not intentional oppression. Accurate pop culture inclusion of deafness could really change that by making it normal to see deaf and hearing people interacting. Most hearing people I have met respect sign language, and some immediately want to learn more!  Deafness is incorporating into the mainstream, with or without television. While there has been some slow progress, with shows such as Switched at Birth, diverse casting remains the exception, not the rule. It’s well past time that broadcast media meet our multicultural nation’s demands more multicultural programming. Popular American TV shows should reflect and embrace the beautiful diversity of their audience!