"A Good Future for Deaf Children": A Five-Year Sign Language Intervention Project

Article excerpt

Deaf preschoolers and hearing family members learned sign language in a 5-year intervention project. Once weekly, each child met with a teacher who was deaf. Parents, siblings, and other relatives met about once monthly to study sign language, and all families in the project signed together about twice yearly. The present study addressed four questions asked of parents about the project: (a) How did the children learn to sign? (b) Did both the parents and the children benefit from the project? (c) What was the position of sign language in the family? (d) Did the project have some impact on the family's social network? The families indicated satisfaction with the project; they learned to sign and their social networks expanded. Parents favored bilingual education: Sign language was the main language but learning Finnish was also important. Learning sign language was not easy, especially for the fathers. The families that were most actively involved in the lessons learned the most.

Deaf people may be seen as a cultural and linguistic minority rather than as people with a pathological medical condition (Reagan, 1990; Sacks, 1990). They in fact "distance themselves from impairment and disability" (Corker, 1998, p. 9). Are deaf children "at risk," and do they and their families require early intervention as seen in this framework? The intervention provided to the Deaf has primarily been linguistic intervention in which the aim is not to cure a disability but to avert additional disabilities by providing support when the child is at a young enough age. (Shonkoff & Meisels, 1990; Upshur, 1990).

Bernstein and Morrison (1992) studied intervention programs for deaf infants and preschool children. The amount of sign language in the 134 programs they considered seemed extensive at first glance; 89% offered sign language instruction in schoolbased programs, and 79% in home-based programs. However, it was mainly Manual Codes on English, not sign language, that was taught. Instruction in American Sign Language (ASL) was offered in only about 25% of school-based programs and about 11% of home-based programs.

When such programs are available, families can still experience a lag of about 11 months between diagnosis and intervention (Meadow-Orlans, Mertens, Sass-- Lehrer, & Scott-Olson, 1997). Often, a longitudinal evaluation of these programs has not been conducted (Moores, 1996).

Although sign language intervention programs would be welcomed, few such programs are available. A program called "Family Resource" is now being conducted in Stockholm, Sweden. There, the parents of deaf children are taught sign language for 2 hours once a week in the evenings; however, the children are not included.

In the present article, we describe a project that concentrates on both Finnish Sign Language and the cultural aspects of being deaf. We describe the project primarily from the perspective of the parents involved.

The Intervention Project

"A Good Future for Deaf Children" was a 5-year educational project in which preschool-aged deaf or severely hard of hearing children and their hearing family members received intensive sign language education. The deaf children accepted into the project had no other significant handicaps. The project was organized by the Service Foundation for the Deaf and funded by the Finnish Slot Machine Association. The main assumptions underlying the project were those proposed by the Bonaventura Association (1991), that

deaf children are children. The language of deaf children is sign language. Deaf children are not ill. Deaf children will become deaf adults. Deaf children need deaf and hearing people around them. The parents of deaf children need each other. Having a deaf child in the family affects the entire family. (p. 4)

Initiated in 1995, the project involed 61 families and 66 children. Twenty new families with 21 deaf children joined the project in 1996. …