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Children without a language

  • 20 January 2016

In September last year a five-year-old boy arrived at preschool in Sydney with no language. Owen is deaf and for five years medical professionals instructed his parents not to sign. The boy had been fitted with cochlear implants and told these devices would eventually give him access to speech. They didn't.

Owen is now enrolled in the only bilingual preschool for deaf children in Sydney, eagerly learning Auslan (Australian Sign Language). His face lights up each time he learns a new sign; Owen loves preschool and is thrilled to finally communicate.

But he's lost the most vital five years of language acquisition; studies show this will impact his linguistic and cognitive abilities for the rest of his life. He will never catch up to his hearing peers.

Last year, the bilingual preschool, was cut to three days a week; when it reopens after the holidays, it will only be open two days a week. In 2017 it will probably close.

This centre is the only place in Sydney where deaf children can learn Auslan.

Owen's story is not unique.

Every year children arrive at deaf schools across Australia well behind their hearing peers with little or no language, because parents and professionals have refused to sign. The reasons for this are many, but an underlying theme is that parents and professionals want the children to be 'normal'.

This is surprising, considering we live in a time when difference is more accepted than ever. Gone are the days of Leave it to Beaver when the norm was straight, white, able-bodied middle class families. Here, in the 21st century, Mardi Gras is mainstream and Adam Goodes is a brand ambassador for David Jones. Racism and prejudice still exist, but in the media we are seeing more diversity than ever before.

Yet when it comes to parenting a deaf child, the tendency is to reject difference. Parents and professionals try to force that child to be something they're not: hearing.

In 2013 I presented a paper at the International Conference of the World Federation for the Deaf in Sydney, where I gave the results of a survey of 72 hearing parents of deaf children in Australia. The majority said they had been told not to sign by speech therapists or medical professionals.

Six years ago my daughter, Kaitlyn, was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss. Initially, I was devastated.

I, too, was told by an early intervention centre not to sign with my deaf child.