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
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
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
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
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
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.