Dr Bianca Birdsey is the founder and chairperson of Thrive, a parent support and advocacy group providing support to families of deaf or hard-of-hearing children.
She is mom to six-year-old twins and a five-year-old daughter who are all deaf.
She described how she and husband, fellow doctor Graeme Birdsey, began to worry when her twins had turned two and were still not talking.
“We were reassured with many excuses, ‘twins speak late’, they said. We were living and working in a rural KwaZulu-Natal hospital at the time and some suggested ‘they are not engaging with other English-speaking kids’ and this might be the reason,” she said.
Here, she explains the importance of having your child’s hearing tested before it’s too late. “With newborn hearing screening not being routinely done in South Africa, most babies are not getting tested. No one mentions hearing loss, and considering that international statistics show that more than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, it is reasonable to assume that most new parents might have a low index for suspicion of hearing loss as a possibility for their babies.
“Irrespective, new parents should have their newborn’s hearing tested while in hospital. It is a painless process and fairly inexpensive. It can save a great deal of heartache and will ensure you get help at the earliest possible stage.
“Should your child experience any delays in language development, behavioural difficulties or struggle at school, have their hearing retested. The consequences of delaying this are dire.
“Knowledge is power, and this journey is one that can be so filled with hope, once your child’s hearing loss is identified and the necessary steps of intervention have been addressed,” says Birdsey.
Dr Birdsey has some suggestions on how to raise a thriving, content deaf child:
Know that you are not alone
There are parents and professionals who want to help, and free support is readily available. Any degree of hearing loss can be significant It can impact a child’s language development and sound access in a learning environment. Your child will need to optimise all visual input, especially in the school classroom. Be sure to have their vision tested too.
This is a journey
There are no quick fixes. No amplification device or operation totally restores hearing to that of a typically hearing child. But they can provide fantastic access to artificial sound, that with intensive intervention, sees some children develop a spoken language fluently.
This is your journey
What worked for one child, might not result in the same outcomes as another – your child is unique.
Knowledge is power
Equip yourself with unbiased evidence-based information. Make decisions based on what best fits your child and family.
Follow your child
Be attentive enough to notice, then flexible enough to try something different until you find a better fit.
No language modality is better than another
South African Sign Language (SASL) is a complete language just like any spoken language. A spoken language is not superior to a signed language and visa versa. What works for your child is what matters. SASL is often unfairly criticised. It is not impossible for a parent to learn, and offers many a deaf child the gift of communication. It offers ccmmunication that is able to express and discuss any topic to as much detail and complexity as with a spoken language. Exposure to sign language will not stop your child from speaking.
Different is beautiful
Be sure that your child knows that he/ she is loved and accepted just the way that they are. They are not something broken, but rather just different… and different can be quite beautiful.
Get the help you need
There is no pride lost in accessing the expertise and information necessary to be the best possible parent to you deaf/ hard-of-hearing child. You will find that at different stages on your journey, you will need expert input to guide you with your next set of decisions.
Roll up those sleeves!
This journey is tough at times, especially initially. However, with the right intervention and support, you will discover that it is one that can be quite wonderful, and every ounce of effort will be well worth it.
KZN Blind & Deaf Society’s Talk Sign campaign promotes Deaf awareness and South African sign language via a sticker day on March 10. http://www.talksign.co.za/