A Place At The Table
(Wendy Lichtman has given us her permission to run her article that appeared in the Washington Post, Sunday, November 22, 1998, page W15. Wendy resides in North California.)
Raising her daughter, she discovered the differences between the world of the hearing and the world of the deaf. She also found bridges between them.
We had 19 people coming for Thanksgiving last year and no matter how we juggled the plates and chairs, my 14-year-old daughter, Bekah, and I were able to squeeze only 18 places at our rented table. Bekah, who is deaf and uses sign language to communicate, stood holding the extra plate. "You know," she told me, "I don't need to sit here. I'm not really going to understand what's happening anyway." Then she looked at my face, which must have shown my feelings, and signed, "No offense, Mom."
I wasn't offended. I was, however, aching, because I knew just why she felt that way. When the kids were younger, they would all eat quickly and run off to play, and Bekah could be included in the games without much difficulty. But now they are all teenagers and young adults and they don't leave the table the entertainment is talking. Even though there would be five of us at that Thanksgiving dinner who sign fluently when talking one-to-one with Bekah, in a larger group it doesn't work that way. The conversation gets fast and funny and people interrupt, change topics and crack jokes, and we all tend to drop our signs. Although I'm the best signer in the family, interpreting for 19 people--while eating and attending to guests--is impossible. Bekah misses a lot, which is frustrating and hurtful. We've spoken about hiring an interpreter to join us, but except for special occasions like her cousin's wedding and her grandmother's funeral, we've never done that. She thinks it's too weird to hire someone to come to dinner at our house, and I share her feelings.
I know it's not only deaf teenagers who might prefer to skip a large holiday mealhearing teens, too, can feel disconnected from their families, and, at a table without peers, get bored or annoyed. But for deaf teens, 90 percent of whom have hearing parents, there's usually something else going on as well: There's a good chance that before they've had the opportunity to make the natural adolescent choice of bowing out of the conversation, they've already been shut out of it. There's a good chance that a deaf kid who says no thanks to sitting at the family table isn't rejecting the scene so much as feeling rejected herself.
So that Thanksgiving Day, I moved plates, silverware and napkins closer together to make room for another place setting, and told Bekah how important it was to me that she sit with us.
The day my husband and I reamed that Bekah was deaf, we enrolled her in a deaf pre-school and enrolled ourselves in sign language classes. Although we had no knowledge of sign language at the time, neither of us doubted that we wanted to use it with Bekah. She was 17 months old, and so hungry for language that, within two weeks, she had learned to sign 50 words. Words filled her mind and her hands cheese, cookie, doggie, brother, shoes, mine, Mommy, Daddy, cracker and soon she had as many words as most toddlers her age. Although I was filled with grief during those early weeks, it was obvious that Bekah was not; it was clear to all of us that she was relieved. Gone were the tears because I had brought her the wrong juice, gone were the grunts and points as she struggled to tell us what she wanted.
Despite my sadness, I loved seeing her baby signs; despite my fears, I was so glad to be learning how communicate with her. Still, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of having to learn another language to raise my daughter. We were actually studying two new languages at the same time: Signing Exact English (SEE), a signed system that coordinates with speech and which the teachers at Bekah's school advocated, and American Sign Language (ASL), the visual language of the deaf, which has its own grammar and syntax, and which the deaf professors at our community college taught. Native ASL signers feel passionate about the beauty and clarity of their language; when writing, they capitalize the word deaf to distinguish deafness as a culture from deafness as a diagnosis. SEE advocates, mostly hearing people in the field of deaf education, feel strongly that it's better to use a sign system that coordinates with spoken and written language. I was aware of the philosophical differences between the two groups, as well as the harshness with which they judged each other. But at that time I didn't care which system we usedI just wanted to be able to talk to my baby. And the truth was, I didn't trust either system.
All these words she is signing, I thought, are nouns. They're all concrete objects. Yes, I could understand how she learned the word "shoes"I pointed to her shoes, signed "shoes" and after a few times she got it. She was signing "shoes," and she was going to retrieve her own shoes if I signed the word; it was greatexactly what a toddler needed to know. But how, I wondered, will she understand concepts? How will I ever teach her to express her feelings, her ideas and her dreams? In fact, it was her dreams that saved me.
A few months after we had learned of her deafness, Bekah climbed into my bed in the early morning darkness, took my face in her hands to awaken me, and then when my eyes opened, she signed, "Dream, wow!"
I burst into tears. "Dream, wow!" is a concept. You can't point to a dream and you can't hold one in your hands like a pair of shoes. And Bekah had learned the concept of dreaming the same way any hearing child learns it, of course. When we kissed her good night we told her "Sweet dreams"; when we read books to her, we pointed to the child in the bed and signed, Maybe that boy is dreaming Rowe On occasion I would tell her what I had dreamt. This really works, I thought, as I lay in bed that morning, overwhelmed with relief, and watched my daughter's hands. Bekah had proved to me that she was learning a language that could express something we weren't looking at. I don't think I understood that I could be the kind of mother I longed to be until I knew that Bekah would be able to tell me her dreams.
And that changed everything. It meant, for starters, that I could trust that Bekah could understand the consequences of her behavior. Understanding "You touch that stove, you get burned" depends on the toddler having language available. You don't have to allow children to get burned to teach the conceptthat is the magic of language. The next time they are near something hot, you can remind them, "It's hot, like the stove. Careful you don't get burned."
It's hard enough to teach cause and effect to a toddler with language, but without it, it's impossible. It's hard enough to reassure preschoolers with language that Mommy will come back home after work, but without language, it simply cannot be done.
There was an amazing custody case in North Carolina in 1996 in which Sonya Kinney, a deaf 15-year-old girl, pleaded for the court to dissolve her father's parental rights and give her guardianship instead to her sign language interpreter. Kinney's father argued that although he didn't sign, he loved his daughterhe knew how to get her attention by stomping on the floor, and he gave her money to go to the mall. While her father and siblings said that Sonya was included in family times, she saw it differently. "If I have to live with them," she signed in court, "l am alone all the time."
The remarkable thing about this case was that the judge agreed with the child. He ruled that her interpreter, Joanie Hughes, would be the better guardian because neither parent could "effectively and extensively communicate with Sonya without the assistance of others." The legal community and the media were surprised that for this reason a judge had decided against the biological parents. But those of us raising deaf children were surprised only that a judge had gotten it right. For the first time ever, in a court of law, it was declared that a deaf child deserves to have more than a stomp on the floor and money to go to the mall. A deaf childlike any childdeserves to be understood.
There were five other deaf children Bekah's age in our school system, and we considered ourselves lucky that the number was so high, and that all of the families were learning to sign. Here were other adults who could understand both my daughter's language and my feelings. We formed a natural support grouppeople with whom I could talk about issues like the shock of finding ourselves in this situation, how to get the school system to meet our kids' needs, and who else in our children's lives we could ask to learn sign language.
My extended family lives across the country and sees my daughter only a couple of times a year. I never did ask them to learn to sign. My close friends, who see my daughter regularly, didn't need to be asked. They helped me find a sign language teacher, and, one night a week for a year, 15 people came to our home to study. In addition, 10 of my son's friends, second-graders at the time, came after school for weekly lessons.
Nothing touched me more, that first year, than seeing nearly everyone who walked into our house give it a try. Nothing made me happier than watching my kids be able to have a conversation. "You only get one," my 7year-old son, Lev, could explain as his 2-year-old sister checked out the plate of cookies I'd put out for his sign language class. "My cookies," she could argue, trying to correct Lev's impression that she was supposed to share anything. "No way," he could sign with one hand, slipping the plate out of her reach with the other.
But then Bekah's language took off. My husband and son and I raced to keep up, but despite our friends' good intentions, as Bekah became more fluent, it was difficult for them to communicate with her. Sign is a complex language, people have busy schedules, and now, a dozen years later, none of the adults is capable of much signed conversation with Bekah. One dear friend's daughter, one niece who studied sign though she lived far away and one neighbor are fine signers, however, and given the opportunity to invite members of the community to join her to say a prayer at her bat mitzvah last year, Bekah, not surprisingly, chose these three young women.
Although Bekah loves many her relatives who don't sign, she misses the ability to have a conversation of depth, and so do they. Last year, another cousin and his wife moved to the area and they visit us often. "I wish I could sign," he told Bekah one night after a dinner where, with me interpreting, everyone was involved in the conversation. Bekah shrugged. "You could if you wanted to," she told him. "You could learn." When, a few weeks later, he came over and knew the signed alphabet and a couple dozen words, Bekah nodded in approval. "Not bad," she teased him, joyfully, as she corrected one of his signs.
Like most hearing parents of deaf children, we also made a serious attempt to teach Bekah to speak. To pick up any possible sounds, she wore two powerful hearing aids at home, and, in addition, at school she was wired into an FM system so the teacher's voice would be amplified over background noises directly into the hearing aids. Bekah had speech therapy several times a week, and, to encourage lip reading, we always spoke as we signed. And she's had moderate success in this area. Her speech is usually clear enough, for example, to tell a salesperson what she wants, and those of us close to her can understand a lot of what she says. But for any in-depth conversation, Bekah uses ASL, and people who want direct, meaningful communication with her do as well.
Having a deaf child brings with it many problems that I never would have known to think about: My new set of worries ranged from how Bekah would be aware of a fire alarm to how she would have access to popular culture. I'd never have guessed, for example, the loss I'd feel at not being able to sit on the couch and watch television with my daughter, or the burden of having to sit next to the TV and sign reruns of "Mr. Ed" and "Bewitched." So the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, when Bekah was 6 years old, brought us much-needed relief.
The ADA's major emphasis was on accessibility and safety issues, and for us this meant that flashing lights were finally installed in her classroom and in the school bathrooms so the deaf children could know when the fire alarm rang. It meant that Bekah was able to attend a summer science program when she was 10 because the museum, funded by the state, was required to provide a sign language interpreter.
It also meant that printed words began showing up on our television screen just about the same time the federal law that requires what is called "full inclusion" for disabled children. Like many people involved in deaf education, I question this phrase, which too often means the only choice is mainstreaming the student in the local school with an interpreter. Full inclusion for our children, we argue, means not only that they're able to know what the teacher is saying, but also that they can talk to their classmates. It means that they can be involved in sports, in social life and in after-school activities. Full inclusion for our kids often means that they be allowed to go to a school for the deaf. So we were there to talk about this topic, but there was a glitchthe technicians needed extra time to set up the cameras and lighting so they wouldn't be shining bright lights into the eyes of the deaf people as they watched the conversation.
In most instances I wouldn't be very patient while waiting for a technician to figure out how to set up his lighting, but that evening, as I had my first real conversation with a deaf adult, I was thrilled that it took so long. We talked about our kids, our thoughts about different styles of education, and where she got that great purse. We gossiped about my ASL teacher, and worried about the development of a child we both knew. "Call me and we'll chat," Hedy signed when the evening was over, giving me her phone number, and it was to her, the very next day, that I made my first TTY call.
In the decade since that meeting, Hedy has given me guidance about deaf culture and education, and I appreciate that. But what's much more important to me is that we've become friends. I know that the reason professionals in the deaf community encourage hearing parents to expose their children to deaf adults is that the children need role models. But I found out along the way that I needed to see successful deaf adults just as much as my daughter did. Like most hearing people, I had been raised believing that a person without hearing can't lead a full, satisfying life, and as the mother of a deaf child, I needed to know that was wrong.
When I first became aware of deaf culture, I was surprised by the phrase "the deaf world," as in the sentence "Yes, he has clear speech, but he's much more comfortable living in the deaf world." It sounded like science fiction to melike some sort of parallel universe. It frightened me to think that my child would live in a different "world" from mine, and I resisted believing that there was such a thing. But a lot has happened to me and to my beliefs over the years, and I know now that there are indeed different worlds. I know, too, that there are bridges between them and that my daughter and I need to figure out how to cross these bridges as often and as gracefully as possible. And I know that sometimes it isn't possible to do that.
I had lunch recently with five of the mothers from my old support group. One woman, a single mother of one deaf and one hearing daughter, had recently turned 50. Her present to herself was a new car, and we all applauded her. "I got a wonderful music system in it," she confessed to us"a CD player." As she told us this nice news, we watched the tears drip down her face. In any other room, her crying would have been incomprehensible, but not in this group. Each of us had, in her own way, turned off the music long ago, and we know what it means to turn it back on. It means that we will be enjoying something that isn't available to our children. It means that we are accepting a seat at a table where our children are not included.
And there are tables at which we cannot sit as well. Some of Bekah's close friends have deaf parents, and recently Bekah was invited on a weekend camping trip that several deaf families were taking together. But the rest of our family wasn't invited to join the group, and I think that's appropriate. I look forward to visiting with deaf friends when we drop off our kids at each other's homes, watch a school basketball game together or, on occasion, share a family dinner, but spending the weekend communicating in ASL would be hard for me, and for my husband and son. So Bekah gets to sit at that tablea table that doesn't include the rest of us. I'm envious of the ease of communication in deaf families, but I'm very grateful that those tables are there for my daughter.
Bekah did sit at the large table for Thanksgiving dinner last year. She and I arranged the seats so that she'd be near the fluent signers, and we **rented a movie so she could excuse herself and go watch it if she felt too bored or left out. She busied herself with serving dessert, she spoke superficially to individual people, and when Bekah and a non-signer wanted more of a conversation they grabbed one of us to interpret. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it was the best we could do. At every stage of Bekah's growth we are forced to re-solve this problem, and we always question what is the best way. But there is something that we don't doubt: Bekah belongs at that tableand it is our responsibility, and hers, to make sure she's there.
Recently, I watched my daughter in an animated, humorous discussion with one of her good friends as they ate breakfast and speed-signed exquisite ASL. When I sat down with my coffee and entered into the conversation, the girls slowed down their signing. When I missed a phrase, which was often, Bekah used her voice to interpret for me. The pace changed, the discussion got less natural, the two girls repeated more and checked in with me often to see if I understood. And yet, despite these problems, I felt this: There was a place for me at her table. It is, as our children become adults, what all parents want.