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A Voice and A Choice – Fostering your Child’s Communication Skills

By Lindsay Hutton

A Voice and A Choice – Fostering your Child’s Communication Skills

As the parent of a deaf or hard-of-hearing child, no one needs to tell you about the challenges you face day-to-day. More specifically, over 90% of deaf/HH children are born to hearing parents, it’s not unlikely that your efforts to best raise your child into a happy and successful adult may feel like learning a new language.

Norah-Lynn McIntyre, the executive director for VOICE for Hearing Impaired Children, an organization offering support for parents of deaf/HH children, was told twenty years ago that her daughter, born with severe hearing loss, would never learn to speak. “Times were much different then. [But] with a lot of hard work, my daughter had age-appropriate speech and language skills by the age of four.”

True, times have changed. At present, several studies indicate that over 90% of children born with a severe-to-profound hearing loss can learn to speak, most often with the help of hearing aids and cochlear implants. However, several other studies show that deaf/HH children require different approaches to learning the most basic concepts and speech patterns that will ensure top-drawer literacy and communication skills as the grow.

Know Your Allies

No one expects you to be born with a professional-grade skill set on the rudiments of educating your deaf child. “My husband and I were really intimidated about what was ahead of us,” says Kerri-Anne, a Winnipeg-based social services worker, and mother of Terence, a four-year-old born with severe hearing loss. “At the same time, our GP immediately set us up with a wonderful doctor, an ear specialist, who then put us in touch with a special auditory/verbal therapist.”

Some doctors, like any profession, are less in the know than others. If you feel you’re being left out of the loop, contact your municipality’s public health office for help, and a local chapter of a deaf /HH advocacy group. Not only will they help source out the best care for your child, but make sure you have avenues for all levels of support required for your family to adjust – most importantly, other parents going through similar efforts with their child.

Your Home, The Classroom

Anita Bernstein, the director of auditory therapy and training programs with VOICE, as well as an auditory/verbal therapist practicing in Hamilton, highlights the importance of learning to listen to your children’s sounds. Learn to interpret even the most basic squeals and gurgles to help them understand their power and meaning. “Start with their sounds, their ‘words;’ repeat the sounds they make to increase their babble [or speaking,] says Bernstein. “This helps the child understand that their sounds have meaning.”

Similarly, Bernstein helps parents focus their children’s attention to the importance of the sounds around them via “listening walks,” or games of hide-and-seek where the parents calls their child, and offers a prize when they are “found” as positive reinforcement. “Make it a game,” says Bernstein. “Even having them listen to someone knocking on the door, and understanding that the sound means Daddy’s home – we want them to know that there are good things about listening and understanding.”

McIntyre agrees, noting that as her child grew a little older, inherent in her efforts were to start small conceptually, and build from there: “I learned how to become a full-time language teacher. Everything was bought down to its most basic concepts and questions. For example, first I’d ask her to put an item into a box. Then it was the “red box.” Then it was the “big, red box.”

Auditory/verbal therapists are key to these efforts, and it should be noted that these services are a part of most provinces’ basic health care plan – your doctor can and should provide you with a referral. Similarly, nearly every public school board keeps itinerant instructors available to meet your needs.

Keep Them Reading

Common sense dictates that the key to excellent communication and literacy skills in children means piquing your child’s interest in books right from infancy. One study from the University of Melbourne suggests that deaf/HH children should have 30 minutes, at the very least, of reading time with their primary caregivers a day from the age of 12 months to 5 years-old.

Get to know your local librarian, says Kerri-Anne, an oft-overlooked resource: “The librarian in the kids section at our public library was a godsend. She knew exactly what kind of books would help us play up the most basic parts of our life, books that helped us with vocabulary, especially.”

Find Your Community

Chances are that your child is the only deaf/HH kid on the block. Which also means that you are likely the only parents on the block with a deaf/HH child. Call it safety in numbers, but key to keeping your child healthy and happy is to ensure you’re doing the same. “The backbone of our work is parent-to-parent support,” says McIntyre. “We find that we’re often each other’s best resources.”

With that in mind, get in touch with several different deaf/HH organizations and find out about their online chat rooms for parents, or special events they host. It will help keep you sane, and you’ll soon recognize that the best ideas to support your child’s communication skills will often come from those who have lived it themselves.

VOICE for Hearing Impaired Children has been working in their communities for over 45 years. They offer a host of service, including contacts for support in a multitude of languages, and maintain dozens of chapters nationwide. Their services include parent-to-parent support, education, an online chat room, auditory/verbal therapist referrals, resource guides and manuals, broad-based advocacy, as well as special events. Visit them here.