Our son, Rus, is 18 months old and truly gorgeous. Wherever we go, people stop to admire him. Our son is also deaf. Not profoundly, but severely. In the nightmare period that followed his diagnosis a month from his first birthday, we lived with a sickening sense of unreality, half hoping we would wake up and find it was not real after all.
In this befuddled, grieving, anxious state, we had to make decisions. Our first, very human, response was that Rus would have to talk, whatever the cost; that we would find the technology, wherever it might be, to "fix" his deafness. A friend cautiously suggested we considered "signing" and put a copy of Oliver Sack's moving book, Seeing Voices, our way. It has been our biggest breakthrough in the journey we've taken with Rus during the past seven months.
We decided his first language would be British Sign Language. We would move heaven and earth to learn to sign ourselves. We'd find signing friends for him and we'd teach our friends to sign. We began tentatively, by using a dictionary, and started with the signs for "light" and "hot". A week later, at still only 11 months, Rus began to use the signs himself.
But confusion and even more unhappiness set in. The professionals involved with Rus were either adamantly opposed to our efforts, or at best lukewarm. We were told that he had sufficient hearing to listen and talk and could therefore be part of mainstream society. Signing would relegate him to the deaf community alone. Signing would be the "easy" option for him and he would not make the effort to listen. We were advised to deprive our son of all other forms of language to force him to pay attention to sound and speech alone.
Rus did not like this at all. He keptpulling out his hearing aids and I became concerned that forcing them on him too often might damage our relationship. Signing was indeed "easier" for Rus and he was making huge strides; by 14 months, he was using more than 40 signs. But we were lucky if the aids stayed in for 20 minutes. The audiologist had insisted they be in all day. My husband and I became very anxious, and had our first serious arguments.
We continued to sign, however, because we needed to communicate with our child and because we saw how desperate he was for a language. We also signed because we saw it transforming him from a monster - because of his frustration and unhappiness - into a happy, alert toddler.
Meanwhile, we tried to inform ourselves as objectively as possible. I work with children with learning difficulties, and we were trained to teach by using children's preferred channels for acquiring information. Having made some progress, we then aimed to build up their weaker channels. My work also made Sacks's argument - that children need a …