by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A young mother explained,
I recently was diagnosed with irreversible hearing loss in my left ear and it is starting in my right ear as well. I have 3 young children and I am having a hard time dealing with the loss of my hearing and the frustration of not understanding what they are saying. I have the same problems with my husband some days.
I am writing to see if there are any resources that you can point me in the right direction of for teaching my family some sign language so I am not constantly frustrated and unable to understand. If I continue to lose my hearing, I want to make sure my family and I have a way of communicating before that happens.
It’s always a good idea to have some communications options. In your case, getting hearing aids would be a great idea (option No. 1). And if your hearing drops such that hearing aids are no longer useful, consider getting cochlear implants (option No. 2).
In addition, another option that most hard of hearing people use is speechreading (option No. 3). (I’m a native speechreader having started the day I was born. I tell people that speechreading was my first language.)
I’d strongly suggest you learn to speechread as your primary communications skill. This is because you already are a hearing person—you communicate by using your voice and listening to speech—so are your family members. With speechreading, your family members do not have to learn another language like they would if you wanted to sign to them. All they need to do is learn how to properly communicate with you.
These are simple rules—get close so you can speechread them; have the light on their faces; and, speak clearly and a bit slower. That’s it.
You can learn to speechread by going to speechreading classes, or if there are not classes near you (probably the case) or not at a convenient time, you can get Speechreading CDs and practice with your computer. This works quite well. The Speechreading CD I like is called “Seeing and Hearing Speech“. Speechreading isn’t perfect, but you get better as you practice more. Even so, I’d never want to be without it as I use it all the time, even when wearing my hearing aids. My hearing aids don’t let me understand everything, so putting together what my ears hear and my eyes see greatly improves my comprehension.
Having said that, it’s still an excellent idea to learn a bit of sign language and teach it to your family (option No. 4).
American Sign Language (ASL) consists of two parts—fingerspelling and signing.
Fingerspelling is as its name implies—you spell words by consecutively making the sign for each of the letters in the word or number. It is relatively easy to learn fingerspelling because there are only 26 letters and 10 numbers to learn. After that, it is just a matter of practice and speed.
Fingerspelling is a good thing for you, your kids and your husband to learn—even if you never become fast at it. Speed is not the main requirement. Understanding what your kids are saying is.
You can also use fingerspelling in conjunction with speechreading. For example, some words are impossible to speechread—so fingerspelling them is a good way to get that word across.
Also, some lip shapes are identical for different words. For example the words “million” and “billion” look identical on a person’s lips. So, to let you know that I’m talking about millions and not billions, I could fingerspell the letter “M” while I say the word “million”. It instantly removes any ambiguity in what I am saying.
The other part of ASL is signing, where a specific pattern of hand movements/placements relate to a specific word (thought). You may never become fluent at ASL, but that is perfectly ok. Most hard of hearing people that sign, only sign a bit of ASL anyway. You will want to learn the common vocabulary words you need around the house—phone, lunch, dinner, yes, no, bathroom, come, go, eat, water, hurt, and so on.
Most hard of hearing people that do use sign, use a version of American Sign Language (ASL) called PSE (Pidgin Signed English). This is not true ASL, but uses ASL vocabulary in normal English word order. For example, in English we would say “I am going to the store.” In ASL you would sign “Store, I go.” and in PSE you would sign “I go store”. There are other versions too—for example, SEE (Signed Exact English). In SEE you would sign “I am going to the store.” signing all the words and word endings just as they are spoken in English.
Furthermore, if you want to talk and sign at the same time, you would typically speak in normal English and sign in PSE. This is called SimCom (Simultaneous Communication).
There are a number of websites that teach fingerspelling and some ASL vocabulary. Personally, I like Dr. Bill Vickers ASL University website.
To get started in fingerspelling click on the “Fingerspelling Learning Tool” link (11 bullets down)
Once you know the alphabet go to his “Fingerspelling Practice Tool” link (10 bullets down).
To learn ASL vocabulary, a good place is to start at “First 100 Signs” link (1st bullet).
To look up a given word to see its ASL equivalent, use the left hand column. It lists all the “A” words. Click on any of them to see how they are signed. To change to other letters of the alphabet, click on the appropriate letter along the top of the page.
Now you have not just one, but 4 options to help you communicate in spite of your hearing loss. Effectively use them and you will always be able to communicate with your family.