Isobel attended what her therapists called a ‘toy library’ the other week. It turned out to be an activity group set up for disabled children to work on their motor skills.
Surrounded by 2-to-3 year olds, she was the youngest child there. Much about this group pleased Miles and I: it encouraged Isobel to pass a ball to others, play with pasta textures, and participate in sing-a-long games. She also got to meet other children like herself who had developed a few signing skills.
This came as a surprise to us. Not that they hadn’t told us this before; we’d long since become used to their tactical means of updating us on Isobel’s disability, little by little. This way, they avoid litigation and make sure information is timely and convergent with the many strange twists and turns that CP can take in the early years.
Rather, up to this point, neither therapist had honoured our own access requirements. They’d failed to book a BSL interpreter for Isobel’s team assessment; I only managed to get their follow-up report – two months after the event – because I’d argued this could be construed as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ according to the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act. More incredibly, the letter inviting us to attend the toy library had no address, no telephone number, no fax, and no email address – which, bizarrely, they tried to blame on our deafness.
So naturally, the new turn of events intrigued us.
We decided to go along with it. Initially we laughed as we found ourselves being taught the most basic of signs to welcome all the children with – repeated with a sing-a-long voice – including ‘Hello [name]‘, ‘How are you?’, and ‘Let’s play ball’.
Suddenly, an unfamiliar expression entered the picture. The therapist’s hands formed ‘blocked,’ but her lips said ‘more’. We exchanged glances. Did we just misunderstand? Then she did it again: ‘gone’ (while signing ‘lost’).
The problem was that we were both trying to read the SALT’s signs in BSL rather than Makaton, which takes its cue from toddlers’ gestures as opposed to the visual thinking that often informs BSL. Judging by the puzzlement on Isobel’s face, I wasn’t sure she appreciated these differences either. We decided to raise the matter afterwards.
Let me clarify. We are not against Makaton per se; as a communication system for learning-disabled children that improves motor dexterity and fills gaps in spoken language, it has its uses. We have no qualms about other parents using it to support their learning-disabled children’s development more effectively.
But Makaton may not be the one-size-fits-all SALTs would like us to think it is. Fundamentally, it was devised by hearing people, whereas BSL grew from within the Deaf Community. This is an important distinction that indicates the SALTs’ own misgivings about the advantages of BSL. Yet I’m aware of enough deaf people with a learning disability who have perfectly adequate BSL skills to know that it can work.
We have been teaching Isobel BSL ever since she was born, and we are finally seeing results (see my last post). Moreover, she sees us switching between BSL, SSE and spoken English at home every day; even if she doesn’t get the concept behind many of these adult signs – most one-year-olds don’t – we are convinced that she knows instinctively the role they play in our social and cultural lives.
Our gut feeling is that the receptive BSL skills Isobel is building are more advanced than her productive skills. Certainly, she is at her most curious when in BSL company, and she always responds with delight at the sight of her own sign-name.
Her earnest way of looking has been much commented on by many of the professionals who work with her. Is that not intrinsic to BSL culture too?
When we tried to explain our concerns, however, the SALT did not agree. “Isobel is at pre-language stage,” she countered, “so BSL is far too complicated for her to understand. She needs to be introduced to language slowly. It’s far better to teach her Makaton, followed by speech; once she’s mastered both, you can teach her BSL.”
This both made my blood boil and set off alarm bells. Did she think Isobel had a learning disability? My own suspicion was that any delays in Isobel’s understanding were more likely to be incurred by practical activity or exercise often linked to effective learning, which itself requires good motor co-ordination and dexterity, rather than any mental disability.
We do know that people with CP are at increased risk of having a learning disability. But even if Isobel’s MRI brain scan does indicate one, we refuse to think that she cannot learn simplified BSL. More crucially, we believe that as a first language it will still help her acquire speech.
The very notion that BSL is complicated is rubbish. Plenty of children of deaf adults (CODAs) learn basic signs before they learn to speak, as Charlie Swinbourne’s article demonstrates. We have proof that these signs actually enhance their spoken language development: why otherwise would baby signing classes be so popular?Although – to be fair – the SALT did say later that she was prepared to make compromises, she was still unfamiliar with BSL structure, and refused to accept that in many ways the language is more visual than Makaton. (Remember visualization is crucial to understanding in BSL.) Then – inadvertantly – it transpired that her misguided belief came from the experiences of hearing non-disabled people who’d struggled to learn BSL in adulthood. Hmm. Interesting how her views echoed the long line of SALTs who’d managed to oppress deaf children through their oralist methodology.
In a broader context, for us to discard it with our own daughter altogether risks being counter-productive to our growing linguistic bond as a family. Is her wish to connect with her own parents and their deaf community not paramount? Shouldn’t we concentrate on ensuring she values good communication with us first and foremost? Are we not the experts of our own child?
I accept that Isobel’s motor developmental delay has impacted on her BSL skills, although by how much I do not know; the dearth of information on the web about developmental milestones in this area bothers me more than anything else. Nevertheless, I recognise that her cognition will emerge as she works to co-ordinate her motor abilities, and that both of these will need to chime with language in order for BSL to materialise.
Again I do not believe she is learning-disabled, and unless her MRI scan proves otherwise I refuse to treat her as if she is. And even if that were true, I will not confuse her with signs that we do not agree with. Teach BSL as a third language? Over my dead body.
- Ever-more elusive communication circles (themostynthomasjournal.com)