To Speak Or To Sign: A Family's Journey

At first, people thought my parents were overreacting. When my mother read stories to my sister Elise, the baby stared blankly or gurgled quietly in her crib. Our father would bang pots behind her back and get no reaction. And she wasn't learning to speak. Things hadn't seemed quite right since she was given antibiotics as a baby in Glasgow, Scotland, where she was born in 1971. One doctor held a watch to her ear and said she was fine. But he was mistaken. By the age of 2, the silent little girl was correctly diagnosed: She was deaf.

That began my family's long odyssey to help my sister function in the hearing world. Through years of daily speech therapy in Canada, where we grew up, tear-filled sessions at the kitchen table, and hours of staring at our lips, Elise learned to speak--and do it well enough to get a degree in anthropology and political science at the University of British Columbia.

What Elise didn't get for the first 24 years of her life was a fluent understanding of sign language. What little she picked up as a child couldn't be practiced at home because our parents, after getting conflicting advice from specialists, encouraged her to use her voice instead of her hands to communicate. They wanted whatever was best for Elise, whatever would help her thrive. It soon became clear that, with a lot of personal attention, she was capable of learning oral communication. So I never bothered to sign much beyond the remark: "My sister is deaf, and she is not begging for money like you," to scare off the deaf guys hawking donation cards down the street. My older sister learned the signed alphabet in her Brownies troop but rarely used it with Elise. Deafness was a disability; we all wanted to help Elise communicate with the wider world.

But Elise "always felt something was missing," she says. That's why, four years ago, she decided to become fluent in sign language. By making it part of her daily communication, Elise put herself into the heart of a fierce debate that rages within the deaf community. Is it better to teach deaf children to speak, or should they be taught sign language as their means of communication? After exposing Elise to both, our parents and her teachers chose the former course, thinking that, after all, it's a speaking world. Why focus solely on a "language" that few people understand?

Today, however, says Nancy J. Bloch, executive director of the National Association of the Deaf in Silver Spring, Md., "the popularity of American Sign Language (ASL) is definitely on the rise." Some colleges recognize it as a second language rather than a coping mechanism for those who can't talk.

Elise learned to sign as a small child in a special program for the deaf. But her signing skills withered at age 8, when she became the sole deaf child in her mainstream school. She struggled to keep up with the help of note-takers, speech therapists, and hours of extra homework. She embarked on signing after college graduation, when she decided on a career that would let her use sign language full-time. As a counselor for deaf adults at a community center in Portland, Me., Elise now communicates on a deeper level. "I get lost in the hearing world," she explains, seated in an office decorated with deaf paraphernalia, including a clock with hand images.

For many of the 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing in the U.S., speech is what some call a nonnatural language. It's tough to acquire and tough to use. About 1% of the U.S. population is deaf, struggling to figure out what's being said, then struggling to reproduce sounds they've never really heard. The result: They often don't understand what's going on, and others don't understand them. Many people now argue that deafness is not a disability but a cultural difference with its own natural language. They contend that we forced Elise to learn our language when she could have absorbed more and communicated more easily in ASL.

The issue, says Jeffrey Bettger, an assistant professor in special education at San Francisco State University, is learning to communicate--not learning to speak. For him, the debate comes down to "the unobtainable desire to make deaf children hearing and make them perfect at a spoken language, vs. the understanding that language--including sign language--is merely a tool used for communication and learning."

For most of her life, Elise fit into neither the hearing nor the nonhearing world. An official at the University of British Columbia refused to waive the second-language requirement for her, then dismissed ASL as an option, calling it "a bunch of gestures." The attitude continues: In May, North Carolina Secretary of Health & Human Services H. David Bruto said teaching only in sign language amounts to child abuse.

Elise didn't get much sympathy, either, when she enrolled for postgraduate work at Gallaudet University, a Washington (D.C.) school for the deaf. At Gallaudet, where students once reacted to the appointment of a hearing president with a massive signed protest, Elise felt ridiculed for having the signing skills of an 8-year-old. All students there sign, many using ASL exclusively. Some of her classmates felt that speaking at all was a betrayal to the cause.

Learning ASL at Gallaudet freed Elise from the strain of trying to understand what she couldn't hear. We didn't know it, but Elise had missed out on seminal events in our family, from major illnesses to basic discussions around the dinner table. She didn't always ask, and we didn't always explain. At times, she would talk and argue with us, but almost always one-on-one. We thought she had coped with her deafness marvelously well.

At Elise's Gallaudet graduation in 1998, our parents noticed that other families signed. The three of them stood there, our mother says, embarrassed in the bilingual crowd. Amid a sea of animated hands, my parents could do little more than extend a handshake and then turn to Elise for translation. Realizing how much Elise had missed over the years, they have enrolled in sign-language classes. So has the man Elise has been dating for the past 18 months. He is not deaf, but he tries to sign whenever he speaks with Elise. I'm starting to learn some more signs, too. ASL is a beautiful, expressive language in its own right. Recently, as I watched a flurry of emotional gestures between Elise and her boyfriend while walking along Maine's Goose Rocks beach, I felt a twinge of jealousy. It was hard for any of us to hear each other as the waves whipped the shore, and I couldn't sign. So I walked along in silence, much as Elise had during many of our family conversations.

To Speak or to Sign: A Family's Journey

Today, Elise has a new energy in dealing with the world. She still relies on speech to get around, whether it's to charm her way out of a traffic ticket or discuss client cases with her boss. But she has also found hearing and deaf friends who can sign. At a recent dinner party in Portland, that meant voices and hands were going at the same time. I had rarely seen Elise so engaged. There was no hesitation, none of the usual "pardon me?" statements that often preceded her forays into conversation. She sat there talking and signing and laughing with people around the table. "I feel like I'm on an equal playing ground--work-wise, social-wise, and communication-wise," she explains. When asked whether she would raise a deaf child in sign language or speech today, she pauses a moment and replies: "Both."