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The Sign Language for Sounds

Updated on March 4, 2011

My young son sat playing on the kitchen floor, surrounded by his toys and pots and pans, that he had pulled out of the cupboards. His grandmother, that was watching him as he played, noticed that he was not bothered by the noise around him. She became concerned and decided to bang on one of the pans behind him. My little boy didn't flinch a muscle--nor even turn his head. It was that day that we first realized that Mark was not hearing sounds. We took him to be tested at the near by University testing center, and they all confirmed--- our little boy was profoundly deaf.

We lived in a city that discouraged sign language, and promoted Oral programs for the deaf. We were led to believe that sign language would only hamper our son's verbal skills and we were discouraged from using it.  I remember the teachers, coming into our home, showing us how to cover our mouth so our son would have to use his hearing aids to pick up any language---and I still remember the terrible struggles our little boy went through, not being able to communicate with us or with his other siblings. Finally, after several years, and with the help of other parents that were also having the same problems with their deaf children, we were able to get a teacher that knew some sign language and a classroom for our children. By the time we reached this point--the children were so disturbed emotionally--with the lack of normal communication with others--that they were too much for this first, unprepared teacher to handle. Later, fortunately, we found a wonderful, proficient in sign-language, teacher that was able to finally teach our children. At the same time, we parents were also learning to sign and communicate with our children.

However, now my son was nearly 9 years old and his communication skills tested at a pre-kindergarten level, and he could not say any intelligible words. Educators were now telling us that perhaps there were other learning disabilities that were involved, other than his deafness.

This is when I decided to home school my son. I had been developing a program, based on phonics, for the deaf. My mother-in-law was a teacher in a private school, and had helped my other children to learn to read with phonics. I felt, that if there was a sign for the sounds--and not just the letters or words--that the deaf could also learn to read that way. With my sons help, I was able to develop a symbol and hand-sign for all the sounds in the dictionary. If they helped him to say the sound then it worked. Eventually he could read words out loud with the symbols written under the words. His speech was not perfect, by any means, but he was able to sound out words with the hand-signs and symbols he had learned. Later, when his teacher came to visit us, she watched my son read a sentence out loud to her---and practically fell over at the shock. Eventually, the whole class was using this program and all the children were using "Visual Phonics".

In 1981 Visual Phonics was first published by our company, Communication Arts, in the form of a little, yellow book.  We hoped that it could be used by other parents to help their deaf child learn to read.  This program is now being used all over the country in many deaf schools, has been published in several scientific magazines, and currently is being researched at the University of Ohio, Literacy and Learning Center.

But, do I think this is the answer to solving literacy for the deaf?? No!--- I feel that had my son had ASL at an early age and developed his language skills early on, he would have had a better education and a greater ability with language and speech. The two programs together,sign language and visual phonics, I believe, could enhance the knowledge and speech skills of the profoundly deaf. Oral teachers of the deaf could no longer say that signing could prevent the deaf from learning to speak---- and the deaf would not be held back from gaining needed communication skills at an early age, by limiting their use of sign language. There is still much more to be done---and we need to get to work!


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