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Imagine having a disability but not feeling like you are disabled. It sounded like a great approach if one wanted to raise a child to be psychologically well balanced and self-confident. So we made the request to meet a deaf family.
Alfred and Shira and their two deaf sons arrived one Sunday afternoon for a visit with our little family. We were quite excited to have them come into our home. The kids played nicely as we got to know the couple, using our beginning sign language skills, their voicing and speechreading skills, and a good old-fashioned paper and pencil to communicate.
Alfred had a white-collar job working for the provincial government, and Shira, at the time, was a stay-at-home mom. They were warm and friendly. They drove a car and rented a house. It seemed they did just about everything our family did. It was an eye-opening experience. Being deaf certainly wasn’t the horror show that I had imagined it to be.
“So how are you planning to communicate with your little girl?” This question began to come up frequently in conversations. I remember discussing this with Alfred after he asked. At the time, I didn’t fully realize how important a question that was. We seemed to have three communication choices before us: oralism, Total Communication, or manualism. As I understood it, oralism proposed that deaf kids could learn to hear and talk without the need for learning sign language (or the Deaf community!). However, in order to succeed, it was stressed that Miranda would have to spend years going to speech therapists and other specialists.
As is my nature, I was skeptical after being told I could have a “normal” kid if I just did whatever the professionals told us to do. (As an employee of the Ontario Medical Association, I had a lot of contact with physicians and knew that they were mere mortals, not the all-knowing gods and goddesses of medicine many of them would like to be seen as.)
The Total Communication option seemed to make a lot of sense to me. This option called for the use of all the communication methods available: sign, speak, lipread, listen, gesture, mime, and, of course, write. In practice, this is what most deaf people do in the real world. As a mode for teaching deaf children, Total Communication in the classroom is often called Sim-Com (for Simultaneous Communication) where voicing English and signing are done at the same time. Because ASL is not English, an invented sign system called S.E.E. (Signing Exact English) is used.
I was quite disappointed when Alfred expressed to me his belief that Total Communication wasn’t a good approach. I learned from him that most Deaf people considered S.E.E. a corruption of the beauty and efficiency of ASL. Alfred felt that manualism was the best option for people who were profoundly deaf from birth like himself and our Miranda. I began to hear that repeatedly from Deaf people, most of whom had been raised with the oralism or Total Communication approaches.
Manualism in a school setting is now supported by an educational philosophy called bi-bi, short for bilingual and bicultural. This philosophy has two basic tenets. The first idea is that ASL and English are different languages and should be treated and taught as such. The second idea is that deaf and hearing people inhabit different cultural spheres. At the time, I found this hard to understand and accept; but with repeated exposure, I have certainly found this to be true.