Silent treatment

For deaf children, success in life starts in learning communication skills

If an attempt at communication isn’t understood, it effectively didn’t happen. Given that, imagine the difficulty of growing up in a family in which nobody speaks your language.

That’s often the case for deaf children. For various reasons, most parents don’t pick up the skills necessary to use sign language at high or even passable levels, says Casi Ragsdale, a speech language pathologist who works in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program through the Butte County Office of Education (BCOE). Since their work generally involves improving a student’s oral communication, very few speech pathologists work with deaf people, and most know just enough sign language to “get through a three-minute conversation with a baby.”

The same can be said of many parents of deaf children. And the resulting communication problems can manifest outside of the home in surprising ways.

Ragsdale recalled an example. “I had a scooped-neck shirt on, and was wearing a pretty necklace. One girl who’s 10 or 11, she reached right into my shirt to grab the necklace,” she said. “[If I’m that girl], at home, it’s totally worthless to try and tell mom and dad, ‘I want that,’ or ‘I need that.’ Communication is too difficult. So, whatever I want, I’m going to physically get for myself.”

Using her background in signing, Ragsdale works with deaf students on developing language skills, which serve as a framework for thinking as much as speaking. And whereas hearing children benefit from language-rich environments, deaf children usually don’t have strong language models until they enter school at 3 or 5 years old. “By then, much of the window to learn language has already closed,” she said. “So, these kids have a lot of really impactful deficits.”

In some cases, 5- or 6-year-old students can’t express their most basic needs. “I’m teaching them to say, ‘I want more’ or ‘I don’t like that.’”

On school days, BCOE buses students who are deaf or hard of hearing from throughout Butte County to Durham. The Deaf and Hard of Hearing program is small—just 23 students ranging from age 3 to 18—but it’s situated on the campus shared by Durham’s elementary, junior and high schools.

The school offers a sense of community, which is important because deaf students tend to feel isolated, Ragsdale says. Meaningful connections are hard to come by if you can’t communicate with most peers or family members. For many students Ragsdale works with, their deaf classmates and teachers become like family. “They’re isolated from all of society,” she said.

That’s an observation shared by Teresa Tolzmann, who’s taught deaf and hearing-impaired students for the last 27 years, including the last four with BCOE in Durham. In the classroom, she wears multiple hats on a daily basis—sometimes she’s a mom, a counselor or a friend.

Her husband, Todd, has been profoundly deaf since birth. After decades as a cabinet-maker in Oregon, Todd retired and now assists his wife in the classroom.

“Todd is a magnet for the kids,” Tolzmann said. “He has that charisma; kids, especially, are attracted to him. … And it’s really important for them to have a signing, deaf man as a role model. In my 27 years of teaching, I’ve met only a handful of dads who sign.”

Some parents, men and women alike, learn only basic commands in sign language—i.e., “sit,” “stay,” “come,” “no” and “eat”—and rarely anything more sophisticated. That makes discussing their child’s day at school, homework, emotional state or friendships—or, when the child becomes an adolescent and it becomes pertinent to talk about the complexities of romantic relationships, sex and drugs—nearly impossible.

Tolzmann says she is frustrated, sometimes, by parents who don’t learn to sign. As with any language, it’s easier to become fluent if one begins learning during childhood, and the earliest cues are picked up at home.

“You have to invest in your kid,” she said. “You have to learn this to communicate with your child, and you have to become proficient. Kids have challenges communicating at a higher level than what’s modeled for them.”

Tolzmann doesn’t say that without compassion. She realizes that some parents, especially those on limited incomes, “are just surviving and have to work multiple jobs.” Making the time to learn an entirely new language isn’t easy. Additionally, parents often have difficulty accepting that their child is deaf. “Your dreams of having a hearing child are changed,” she explained. “Sometimes parents go through a grieving process and they delay learning to sign.”

But time is of the essence. “You have a window of opportunity with your child,” she said. “Synapses are closing. You can grieve later, but right now, your kid needs you.”

As for whether a parent’s inability to understand him or her will handicap a child into adulthood, it all depends, Tolzmann and Ragsdale agree. With increased screening and better technology, parents generally know at birth whether their child is hearing or deaf. Ideally, counselors would be assigned to guide new parents of deaf children toward available resources. But the onus remains on individual families to make sure a deaf child’s language skills are developing, and for that child to want to learn.

Tolzmann recalled one profoundly deaf student whose parents “really pushed him to be independent,” and another with mild hearing loss who was over-sheltered by his parents.

“The profoundly deaf boy was far more successful in life, and turned out to be less disabled than the boy who was just a little hard of hearing,” she said. “One boy was made to think ‘disabled,’ while the other was made to think ‘independent.’”