This week’s post is a somber one.
I remember when I was doing Deaf studies at university and I first learnt of this phenomenon; sometimes deaf people, meaning those with profound deafness, not mild or moderate, are not exposed to language. Their parents/caregivers, maybe, don’t want to accept that they are deaf. There’s a whole mourning process: dreams of first words, singing songs to them… all those things they were looking forward to throughout the pregnancy (and early childhood) are just shattered. Perhaps they feel that a deaf person could never amount to anything; maybe they feel ashamed of having a deaf child; or maybe… or maybe…
And so, the child never has the language centres of the brain stimulated. The child is raised by people who speak around him or her all the time, but that language is not available to the child. So, what happens?
Well, consider this: “The critical age for [language acquisition] is around 21 to 36 months old.” (How Deaf People Think) You know what that means? Even if these children are somehow discovered at 6, 8, 11, 13 years old, their language skills will never be up to full native competence.
And so, you have people growing up incapable of reaching their full potential because their caregivers failed to give them a fighting chance.
I found myself curious, and mortified at the same time. And this year, I finally met one such person. He is such a bright spirit, always laughing. But his caregivers thought he was mentally challenged for his first few years. For years, he went without language, his language centres slow dying, until one day, he finally underwent a hearing test.
But by then, it was too late. As a teenager, he probably has the language capacity capacity of a toddler. He gives short one-sign answers, often just ‘yes’, even to open-ended questions. Language is the framework in when we learn, and he was given the chance to develop that framework far too late.
It pains me to know that this boy may never, ever be on par with Deaf people even half his age. It really does. My government failed him, the health system failed him, his caregivers failed him. And that’s just horrible.
There are people today who still believe that deaf people are handicapped, even though there are Deaf surgeons, lawyers, Ph.D. holders… The phrase “Deaf can” is cliché, but true. It is only when we hearing people get in the way that Deaf can’t.
Language acquisition is every child’s right. Signed languages are naturally acquired by any child with functioning eyes, and so the local sign language is the right of a deaf child.
If you have a deaf child (profoundly deaf, or even moderately deaf) give him or her a chance at at attaining something in life. Give that child chance to learn a natural, breathing, living sign language.