Deafness, sign language and babies

Most of us are blessed with five fully functional senses, but I guess the two that most people consider critical are sight and hearing. Indeed it is a common discussion question: would you rather go blind or deaf? For me, the answer is simple: I would rather not lose either sense! I have always been interested in sight issues. I guess that is because I have less than 100% vision – I have worn glasses all my life. I have supported a couple of blindness-related charitable organizations [like the one that I mentioned here] – particularly in connection with my photography.

I know very few people with severe sight problems, but deafness seems to be far more common …

As I get older, I seem to know more and more people with hearing issues – maybe a little “hard of hearing” or perhaps profoundly deaf. It seems to be becoming more common, but actually it is just because, as you get older, your circle of friends’ mean age goes up. When I was a child, the only deaf person who I encountered was my very old grandfather [he died in his early 70s, but, to a child, anyone over 40 was “very old”]. He had a hearing aid which was a box, about the size of two cigarette packs, which he carried in his pocket, with a wire leading up to an ear-piece. When this one stopped working, he got a high-tech behind-the-ear device and the old one was passed to me to tinker with. It was just a simple amplifier with [if I recall correctly] four germanium transistors.

Modern hearing aids are rather more sophisticated, being incredibly small – you can often barely see them nestling in someone’s ear. They are also much more capable, as they are no longer simple amplifiers. They perform complex digital signal processing to filter out background noise and have wireless remote controls to adjust their behavior. Although expensive, these devices have improved the lives of countless people, who have found their hearing failing later in life. Unfortunately, for the most part, such electronics cannot help people who are profoundly deaf, either since birth or as a result of injury or disease.

The answer for many is sign language – a communications method whereby words and phrases are communicated by a well defined library of standardized hand gestures. For around 200 years, many deaf people have found the freedom to communicate using sign language. There are, unfortunately, a number of different systems used in different countries, even those where the dominant language is English. But this is just a slight complication that only really affects travelers. Although it has been around a long time, British Sign Language was finally declared an official language in 2003.

I am always keen to get my terminology correct, as I feel that this is the path to clear communication, so here are some interesting definitions:

  • Deaf – cultural identity/people where sign language is the first language
  • deaf – the medical diagnosis

An interesting spin-off from deaf sign language is “baby signing“. A few years ago, some psychologists had the idea that very small children, who are not yet able to talk [and do not yet have the physical development to enable them to vocalize], might learn a very simplified sign language and, thus, be able to communicate with their parents. This proved very successful and has been applied all over the world. It is not hard to imagine how much more relaxed both baby and mother might be if the baby can more effectively communicate its needs instead of screaming its head off.

I recently heard an interesting story. A family friend has a daughter, who had a baby. She decided that baby signing would be worth trying and it worked quite well. She recently went to a family gathering, which was also attended by an aging, profoundly deaf grandmother. At some point during the party, the baby and the grandmother were observed happily “chatting” in silence, having found a common language. I can only imagine that this was an enriching experience for both of them.

There is someone in my life who often does not seem to hear what I have said. They say that I mumble [and they may be right!], but I think that they need help. A hearing aid is not the answer – I need to invent the “listening aid”. 🙂

Whatever subject I write about, I do try to do some research instead of just making it up. Also, if I know somebody with expertise in the topic, I will pick their brains. In this case, I acknowledge the help of Lesley Paris, who verified my facts and fed me a few more nuggets. Thanks Lesley.


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