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Monday, August 22, 2016

When God Honors Our "Yes": Our Sign Language Journey, Part 2

Guest post by Vicki Raleigh.  When God Honors Our "Yes": Our Sign Language Journey, Part 2.

In Part one I described how the adoption of our daughter, Ava, born with cleft lip and palate and deafness, set us on a journey to become skilled in sign language. Our desire to support her ability to communicate with others led us on a roller-coaster of experiences and emotions, which culminated in our decision to learn and implement American Sign Language in our daily lives. 

In case you’re not already familiar, please note that the phrase “sign language” is a general term which can refer to any number of various forms of manual communication. American Sign Language (ASL) is a true language, complete with it’s own set of rules and guidelines. ASL is a conceptual language and does not parallel, or correlate to, spoken or written English. While ASL is the goal in our home, for the benefit of the reader, I will typically use the more general term, “sign language”.
People who watch us sign with one another will typically ask, “How did you learn to sign?” My usual answer is that we are still learning. I often say that the more I learn, the more I realize I still have left to learn. We strive to use ASL; sometimes we rock at doing so and other times, well, not so much. It’s a process that, for us, has evolved over several years.

So…. how did we get from Point A (a family who knew some basic signs) to Point B (a family for whom signing has become second nature)? Let me begin by saying that there is a vast array of options for families desiring to become fluent in signing and numerous scenarios for educating those who are deaf, as well. Our story is just that…. ours. It’s what has worked for us. We are sharing our experience, knowing that no two families have quite the same needs, and with the knowledge that this journey will look different for everyone.

When Ava was adopted at age 4, she had no formal language system and rarely engaged with others in her environment. Her only forms of communication were pointing or leading us to a desired object. She had no way of expressing her wants, needs, or emotions. Imagine having no way of giving meaning to the objects in your environment, your thoughts, feelings, or experiences. Imagine not even knowing you had a name! That was our starting point. 

Introducing sign language changed all of that – and more – for Ava. For the first time, her world had meaning. Objects and people had names and she could use those names to draw attention, express her needs and desires, and form novel ideas. Ava was no longer living with an apathetic mindset; she now realized she had a purpose and power to control her environment. She began to come into her own.

When cochlear implantation was no longer a possibility, we realized that Ava’s best option for language and communication would be American Sign Language. As part of my education, I’d been required to take two courses in Manual Communication, so I already had some basic knowledge of ASL; however, we needed to find a way to educate ourselves and others who would interact with Ava on a regular basis. We were fortunate to be able to hire an instructor to teach a small group in our home. For a year, our extended family, sitter, and church staff/volunteers, met in our home on Saturday afternoons for ASL lessons. That experience was invaluable as it allowed us the opportunity acquire vocabulary and practice our developing skills with one another.

In the midst of this new endeavor, we adopted two more children, both age 4 at the time. Our son’s hearing is within normal limits, our daughter has unilateral microtia/atresia, resulting in a moderate-severe conductive hearing loss. With the use of a bone-conduction hearing aid, she hears within normal limits. I mention this, specifically, because I want to share how using sign language with them, as hearing individuals, impacted their transition into a family, as well as their development.

First and foremost, we were able to bypass most of the frustration that occurs when parents and children don’t speak the same language. Will and Sophie caught on quickly as we signed to support our spoken English. If they didn’t understand what was said, they certainly understood what was signed to them.
They began to sign their own wants and needs almost simultaneously. We were able to meet those needs much more consistently than I’d anticipated and, as a result, they felt secure and cared for. Sign language helped foster trust, thus aiding the attachment process. 

Additionally, signing facilitated their acquisition of spoken English. It helped to cement vocabulary in their minds and was available to them when they had difficulty remembering an English word. Truly, they attained English speaking skills so rapidly that many adults assumed they’d learned a fair amount of English while living in China. In a short time, the two modes of communication seemed to merge and today, at age 8, both are fluent in English and sign language. 

As they have matured, we’ve focused on teaching them to “turn off their voices” so that they can better communicate in American Sign Language. Sophie, especially, can hold her own in a signed conversation and has recently begun discussing what types of careers would allow her to use her knowledge of sign language.
With the addition of siblings, Ava began to blossom. For the first time, she had peers who could communicate with her. As a result, Ava began to look to them as models of appropriate social and developmental skills. She demonstrated an attitude of “if they can do it, so can I!” 

Having said that, the real tipping point occurred when, a year and a half after adopting Will and Sophie, we welcomed Claire into the family. Adopted at age 7 1/2, profoundly deaf and, like Ava, having no formal language system, Claire was a force to be reckoned with. Although she has more hearing ability than Ava, Claire is also not verbal. She arrived, a master of gestures and facial expressions, and brought with her an insatiable desire to learn. The rate at which she acquired both receptive and expressive signing skills was mind-boggling! 

Claire is 6 months younger than Ava; however, she put on the mantle of “First Born” almost immediately. From day 1, she demanded that Ava communicate with her. Although Ava interacted with Will and Sophie, she continued to prefer solitary activities. Claire would have none of that! 

For Ava, having a sibling “like her” was an impetus to – finally – truly engage in the world around her. The parts of her heart that she’d kept so closed off began to open. She gained a confidence in herself that we’d never seen before. Claire’s desire to communicate, along with her natural leadership skills, somehow bridged the gap between older and younger siblings – between deaf and hearing children.
Another unforeseen result of adopting Claire is that, as parents, our signing skills have improved. She’s eager to learn, meaning we must be equipped to teach – which brings me to the topic of education.

For many reasons, when we began to consider educational options for Ava, homeschooling was an obvious choice. Since then, we have continued to homeschool all four children. While I have a background in education, I knew homeschooling a deaf child would mean we’d need to call in additional resources. I met with educators who taught ASL, educators who were certified to teach deaf learners, and persons who were certified ASL interpreters. I sought their guidance as I formulated an educational plan for our daughter. Each of these people offered a unique perspective and supplied us with a wealth of knowledge. Several persons have continued to provide us with much support over the years; for that, I am truly grateful.

If I’ve learned anything as a result of educating our deaf daughters, it’s that flexibility is key. Just as with homeschooling hearing children yet, perhaps more so, there is a lot of trial and error. 

I’ve also realized that part of my role, as teacher, is to allow each child to set her own pace for learning. Sometimes I school the girls together; sometimes one-on-one teaching is a better option so that each child can demonstrate her knowledge and receive support where it’s needed. I’ve learned not to negate the seemingly small victories; such accomplishments are stepping stones for greater achievements.  


Finally, I’ve learned to trust my instincts and know my limits. When I find I can’t do it on my own, I reach out for assistance. Social media groups have been an unexpected avenue through which I’ve gleaned wisdom, insight, and innovative ideas.
Currently, homeschooling remains a good learning environment for our daughters; however, we are considering a move so that our daughters can perhaps take advantage of what a school for the deaf could provide them.

In the meantime, we continue to access other resources to meet the educational needs of our children. Over the past several years, we’ve employed the services of tutors to support Ava and Claire’s learning. Our girls have received one-on-one instruction from a certified ASL interpreter and from a teacher for the deaf to help them acquire knowledge in American Sign Language and written English. They have also been a great support for myself as I navigate acquiring for knowledge and schooling the girls in various subjects. 

Additionally, we’ve been fortunate to have my mother step in as the primary educator of our hearing children. Prior to her doing so, I was essentially teaching school in two languages and in trying to meet the needs of everyone, was coming up short. Now we’re able to better address the learning styles of each child as we school separately and when able, in conjunction with one another.

Almost 7 years after beginning our adoption journey, we continue to reap the benefits of using sign language. As we have endeavored to learn and teach a language so very different from our first language, we have learned to persevere. We’ve encountered setbacks and obstacles along this course, but have refused to give up. Through signing, we’ve gained a perspective of acceptance and compassion for others. 

Communicating via sign language is something that many consider so very “different”; however, that difference is our norm. I believe that has gone a long way in enabling us to see beyond others’ differences and to see people for who they are.
Finally, sign language has played a role in unifying us as a family and is an integral component of our lives. Signing has become more than just something we do; it’s part of who we are.

Whether your hope is to teach your child a few basic signs to foster better communication and facilitate spoken English or if, like us, you are diving into learning American Sign Language so that you and your child can communicate with each other, I hope our story can encourage you. 

The road isn’t always easy but with faith and determination, along with a willingness to learn from others, it can be done. 

Step forward, give Him your “yes”… and trust that His plan is good.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

What My Eyes Have Seen, Part 4...

This was originally a Facebook post I shared May 29, 2016.  While looking for another article I thought I had shared, I re-read this one and thought I should share it here, too.  There were several who thanked me for sharing this initially and I pray God will use it for whatever He desires.

When God called me to "coordinate the adoption of deaf orphans in the world" He knew what I thought about adoption. He knew the stories I knew of the deep sadness and severed hearts in families of those far and those so close to me. Of families destroyed and torn apart while doing what they thought God had called them to do.
Yes, I questioned, "WHY?" "WHY would you call ME to do this? You KNOW what I have seen with my own eyes?" I have cried with those I loved when they loved seemingly in vain. This was before His call ever came.
I believe that is one reason why His call was so clear, so unmistakable. He knew without it I could never be convinced to do such a thing. He knew my past, what He had allowed and planned for me to experience of adoption. He knew it would impact His calling for me. This journey He has called me to, to walk with those who have been called to adopt is not something I would ever have chosen by choice, but He is the One who does the choosing.
Before, I walked it WITH those He had knitted my life to, because He calls us to "do this life together". Now, He wants me to take part in this process of willfully bringing the great possibility of pain and suffering into the lives of those families He calls to adopt and the children He places in them.
He knew I would search and search for some way to give hope in the midst of the pain of adoption. And that is the parallel journey He has me on, searching for not only resources for families to embrace to help ease the pain of adoption but for the true purpose of pain and suffering...His purpose!
This is not my own. It is His. He bought it with the precious blood of Jesus Christ His only Son.
Why? Why would I think that earthly adoption would be any less painful than yours and my heavenly adoption? The pain our Savior endured on the cross to approve our adoption into God's family was beyond anything you and I can truly comprehend. Yes, it was physically one of the most, if not the most, excruciating and horrific ways to die, nailed to a cross and for all the world to see. But what of the pain, the suffering it caused the Trinity? What was it like for the One who knew no sin to become sin for us? We have no idea!
Why would I assume adoption meant 'happily ever after' when yours and mine does not? Why do I expect these precious ones who know nothing of love before would willingly embrace love without a time of testing?
How much testing, and for how many years, do you and I force our God through to prove His love for us before we are fully convinced and deeply embrace Him no matter what He allows to touch us and those we love? He died on that that not enough? Obviously not!
There are those who avoid me because they are afraid I will try to convince them to adopt. The opposite it far more true. I spend much time trying to convince folks not to adopt, UNLESS of course God has "called" them unmistakenly to do so. Once He has convinced them of His plan and families are sure of it, I then tell them the truth about adoption. It is painful. It causes trauma. Many will suffer because of it. It will, however, be the greatest faith-building experience of their lives. They will be forced to depend solely on God to be able to persevere on His lifelong journey called adoption.
The refiner's fire becomes the hottest just before the dross, the impurities, the sin is set free from the pure and floats to the top to be skimmed off leaving nothing but the purest gold. How we have come to believe this life, this life of following Christ, should be free of pain and suffering I do not know. But unless we can gain a better understanding of His perspective, which is clearly seen in His Word, we will continue to doubt His love when things we call "unloving" happen.
Do I understand fully God's purpose's for pain and suffering? Or why He has planned that pain and suffering are what can cause you and I to be what conforms us to the image of His Son? NO! This is a part of that great mystery that you and I must accept by faith. UNLESS He reveals this to us as we are depending on Him as we go through those flames of purifying. That revelation, of the intimacy those who feel with their God "in the midst" of the fire is like nothing else. It cannot be compared to anything of this world, thankfully.
I had not planned to share all of this, but it seems He wanted me to write it down, if just for my benefit.
The earthly adoption of precious children is not the end of the story, but just the beginning. But I believe without His adoption of these precious ones their earthly adoption is in vain. It is His adoption of them that will truly give them life, life abundant and life eternal. Apart from His adoption His will for adoption goes unfulfilled.

Friday, August 12, 2016

When God Honors Our “Yes”: Our Sign Language Journey, Part One

With permission, I am sharing the first of a multi-part blog post series by Vicki Raleigh.  She does not know this, but I began following the Raleigh family's adoption journey as soon as I found them on the Internet, in 2009.  Their family was one of the first God connected me to through my constant search to learn more about deaf adoption. 

This article beautifully describes what happens "When God Honors Our "Yes":  Our Sign Language Journey, Part One"

Thank you, Vicki!
In May 2009, I first saw her face. She couldn’t possibly be our daughter; she didn’t “fit” any of the criteria we’d committed to on our Medical Needs Checklist and there was no way my husband would agree to adopting her. True, we’d agreed that caring for a child with cleft lip/palate was something we were capable of, but he’d been clear the added diagnosis of deafness was something too far out of his comfort zone.
Still, her image stayed with me and, on what seemed to be a whim, I found myself inquiring about the little girl with eyes that told a thousand stories.

Fast forward to October of that same year and there we were, meeting our profoundly deaf daughter in Zhengzhou, China. I was in love with her instantly; she was funny, inquisitive, obviously bright, and above all, she gave me the gift of motherhood.
On the flip side, we saw signs of much greater deficits than we’d expected. Our daughter, while quick to explore her surroundings, was far removed from any sort of real engagement with others. She was withdrawn, detached, and made no eye contact.

Acronyms and words such as ADHD and institutional autism were discussed. We felt in over our heads; we were terrified. Nevertheless, she was our daughter and we were committed to do everything in our power to enable her to form relationships, to learn, and to thrive.

Prior to meeting Ava, we’d made plans to communicate with her via sign language. We were unsure of the degree of hearing loss but knew that she had no formal language system in place. From day one, we signed to her and began teaching her signs as well.

She was a quick study and would humor us by signing a request, when prompted, but in those first days it was obvious she had no understanding that sign language was a tool that would allow her wants and needs to be met.

I’ve heard it said that you have to find a child’s “currency”; we discovered Ava’s on October 31, 2009. In a hallway of the The White Swan, trick-or-treating with other adoptive families, Ava discovered that if she signed “candy”, a little candy-coated bit of chocolate would be dropped into her hand. It was her “light bulb” moment; over and over, as fast as her little hands could move, she requested candies and popped them into her mouth! For the first time, I had real hope that we could reach this little girl who seemed so removed from the world.

Once home, as we continued to foster communication with sign language, we began the process of cochlear implantation (CI). At 5 years old, and with absolutely no hearing, CI would likely not enable Ava to acquire verbal language as her only mode of communication. Our hope was that it would give her more environmental awareness and perhaps afford her some speech capabilities that would be further supported by sign language.

It was not to be. Ava was implanted in February 2011 and subsequent to a cerebrospinal fluid leak and bacterial meningitis, the implant was removed in April of that same year. A second implant was deemed too great a risk; CI was no longer an option.

So there we were, grieving the loss of all we’d hoped for, uncertain of what the future would hold for our daughter, and wondering if we’d totally “missed God” in this endeavor. Everything we’d done had been done in obedience to Him and out of love for our daughter; now it seemed He was telling us “No, this is not for her, not for your family.” We were disoriented, angry, and wounded. We were battle-weary warriors, ready to surrender.

Then one morning, while still in the hospital recovering from the latest surgery, God spoke to me. He reminded me that while these were troubling days, we would, in the future, recount how He brought forth beauty from ashes. He works all things for our good and this would be no exception.

I’ll be very honest. When that CI was removed, it felt as though the ground beneath us had shaken, split, and was swallowing us as we tumbled, aimlessly, down into a chasm. As we’d gone through the process to acquire a cochlear implant, our vision of Ava’s future had become centered around her having some level of hearing, with some possible speech skills. Everything we’d begun to envision for her was hinged on her having a cochlear implant and now it felt as if all was being snatched away from her. 

We were imagining a life for Ava based on our perspectives as hearing people; we had to accept that such a viewpoint wasn’t fair to our daughter.
Her life would be no less meaningful or purpose-filled without a cochlear implant. Supporting our daughter meant we needed a change in perspective – one that included American Sign Language

Personally, as a speech-language pathologist, I had now entered territory that was beyond my scope of knowledge. I had a good grasp of general sign language but no real understanding of American Sign Language, which is a true language, vastly different from English. 

ASL was something we’d thought we’d dive into if, and when, the time came. That thought process now seems very naïve; however, in addition to attempting to form attachment and give our daughter vocabulary and basic communication skills, we’d been busy addressing other medical needs related to her cleft lip/palate, as well as various other developmental delays so often present in children who have been institutionalized. 

Signing with Ava was paramount but learning ASL had taken a back seat. Once again, we found ourselves stepping out in faith and saying “yes” to the unknown as we endeavored to learn a new language. Our sole ambition in doing so was to be able to truly connect and communicate with our daughter. 

Five years later, God’s word to me has come to fruition. Ava is an amazing 11 year old who is happy, healthy, and thriving. She’s become one of the most securely attached children I know and she is fully engaged in life and relationships.

She loves to create, whether it’s painting/drawing, constructing, or making jewelry. She also enjoys swimming and horseback riding. Science, particularly life science, fascinates her; she has an insatiable curiosity for spiders and insects, a love for any and all marine life, and thoroughly enjoys gardening.

Ava has made tremendous strides in all facets of development. The delays and behaviors we witnessed in those early days have either disappeared or become almost nonexistent. We give credit to our miracle-working God for the transformation that has occurred in our precious girl. Signing, specifically, learning ASL, has been key to her development, education, and attachment. ASL opened doors that had been locked for so many years and Ava continues to walk through doors to new possibilities.

Our adoption journey to Ava, walking through some very dark days, and eventually learning ASL has opened doors for us, as parents, too. We have since adopted three more children from China. Our youngest daughter has moderate-severe hearing loss in one ear and our middle daughter is, like Ava, profoundly deaf. She receives some benefit from hearing aids but ASL is her sole form of communication.

I know that, had we not experienced life with Ava, we’d have found it very difficult to agree to adopt the children we now call ours. I hate to think how we could have missed out on our greatest blessings!

We’ve become a bilingual family – something we never imagined in our journey to become parents. Our deaf children offer a unique perspective on the world and it is one which fascinates me. I never imagined that first yes – stepping out of our comfort zone to adopt a profoundly deaf child – would lead to the family we have now. I am so very grateful that it did.

I am ever-reminded that even when God says “no”, He will honor our “yes”.

Click here for Part 2