"Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive." Anaïs Nin

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Deaf Awareness Presentation for Helen Keller Week

I had an amazing week last week visiting eight classrooms of adorable kids and their fabulous teachers. My son's Second Grade teacher invited me to come to school and give presentations on deafness and Sign Language during  Helen Keller week. I visited just one class on Wednesday, then three classes on Thursday and four on Friday.

The Second Grade students and teachers at my son's school ROCK. They were an excellent audience, asked smart questions and taught me a sign or two as well as corrected me when I discussed the hairs in the ears: they are not just hairs, "They are hair cells" according to one very smart scientific young man.

I was terribly nervous for the first class, in part because it was with the teacher who invited me and also because my son was in this class. I still don't know how to switch from the role of "Mommy" to "teacher" and he doesn't, either. It rather made me tense each time his hand went up to ask a question.

I began the presentation by explaining that I am deaf, how I lost my hearing from many, many ear infections through the years, the sounds just faded away slowly year after year. It was others who noticed my deafness before I did. We discussed the different ways a person can lose their hearing, the importance of taking care of our ears, wearing helmets when riding bikes and skate boarding, because a blow to the head can cause deafness. We discussed how high fevers and illness can cause deafness, as in the case of Helen Keller. The one point I did drive home was how important it is to not turn things up louder than they need when they use ear buds and head phones. One student spoke up and told us that was how her Grandfather lost his hearing, listening to really loud music.

We talked about being born deaf, being culturally Deaf, and how many Deaf people do not consider themselves to be disabled, and that it is perfectly ok to ask someone if they are Deaf. We discussed and demonstrated how Closed Captions work for tv and DVD's as well shared a demonstration of how the Cap Tel Relay system works for telephone calls. I hope in the near future to check out a Video Relay phone and the app for that as well.

They were fascinated to learn how our manual alphabet is dated back at least to the 11th century, about a thousand years ago from Chunny, France where it is documented that Monks used the signs during their vows of silence when they had to perform funerals or other public services. After the first class, I  had to preface I did not know why the Monks made vows of Silence, because that was the first thing a student asked about, "Why do they do vows of Silence?"

We discussed how someone born deaf who has never heard before would not know how to speak unless they had classes in speech therapy, and how many Deaf learn to read lips and facial expression and how American Sign Language is their First Language. I myself had speech therapy and I also took speech reading classes where I learned to read lips, facial expressions and to use guess work and intuition while following conversations.

We discussed how to properly speak to a Deaf or hard of hearing person, to be sure that their lips and face are visible, that it is ok to touch a person to get their attention or wave, and it is perfectly acceptable to speak up if a person says, "Please speak up" as long as it is with a respectful tone.

I showed the students my hearing aids, explained they are not perfect, they are just aids and even though many of us wear them, we still can't hear many things clearly. They help us to be aware of sounds near us and ambient noise, though sounds can be difficult to distinguish, or to know what we are hearing. When I explained how my first pair of hearing aids allowed me to hear birds for the first time in many years (when my hearing was then just moderate) some of their faces looked so surprised. It was a great example of how a gradual loss can occur without a person even being aware, and that this may be the case for many of their Grandparents one day. It's ok to let Grandma and Grandpa know they are losing some sounds and to encourage them to use Closed Captions, a Cap Tel phone and to get their hearing tested, perhaps a pair of hearing aids may help.

The most important point I wanted to drive home was that Deaf people can do anything a hearing person can...except hear. We can read tv, make phone calls and there are some great advances in technology that allows this to be possible for us. The question of driving came up, which was a great example of how we can do the same things as "hearing people".

The highlight of their presentation was learning the manual alphabet and how to use the first letter of their name over their heart for the basic "sign name". I also make a clear point of how they should never make up their own sign name, only a Deaf person fluent in ASL should do this. They would not want to end up calling themselves something like "Nose Picker". They laughed at that and shook their heads, some teachers cringed, but it brought home the point of the importance of not making up their own signs. I showed them the Signing Dictionary I use and told them they could ask their librarian if there is one at the library they can check out.

The children now know how to make friends with a Deaf child at the park. They learned to sign, "Hi, Friend, play?" I think that is the most important phrase a child can learn, besides, "I love you".

At the end of the class, for the tv and Closed Caption demonstration, I showed a video clip of Rachel Coleman from Signing Time teaching how to count from one to ten and the "counting song". Many were familiar with the Closed Caption, for others it was the first time "reading tv". They were very interested in the Signing Time DVD. I told them they could check the DVD's out for free from our own local library and watch them at home.

I explained the two most common Sign Languages we use in our country, Signing Exact English (to teach Deaf children how to read) and ASL, conversational Sign Language. I shared how ASL is like reading a book of just pictures, no words were needed, just concepts of the pictures to tell the story.

As I write this, I can't help but wonder if perhaps one of these students today will grow up and become an interpreter or a counselor or teacher working with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community? Wouldn't it be lovely to know not only did we bring Deaf awareness to the future generation, but also helped someone discover a future career path?


  1. Sounds like they all learnt something out of this, while enjoying at the same time. Sunds like you had fun too.

  2. Hi, Liz,

    I hope they enjoyed it. I certainly did. :-)

  3. I'm sure they did. :)

  4. Sounds like all of you had a great time! :-D

    BTW, concerning sign names. I teach ASL classes from time to time to students older than second grade. When my students ask about sign names, I tell them that people in the Deaf community assign a sign name to a person about whom we have reason to talk when that person is not present. When the person is present, as in class, the person is identified as (pointing to the person). Indexing (pointing) is pretty specific and unmistakable.

    However, I cannot tell you if this would be well understood by second graders.


  5. Thank you, David! I will keep this in mind next time I do a presentation. I'm sure the second graders would understand the concept. They're pretty smart. :-)Thanks for stopping by and sharing this.