One Family’s Journey
Coming Full Circle
They say “It’s about who you know that gets you places in life.” They sure got it right when it comes to the importance of Deaf people and Deaf schools in a deaf child’s life.
Erica is our daughter. She is 26. Erica takes some of the most beautiful photographs. She tells me these pictures are her music. Her pictures tell a story--a story of her passionate love for life, people, and the places across the world where she has traveled. I believe this passion was a direct connection to the many people who entered her life throughout the years.
Erica was born profoundly deaf in 1985. We lived in a small town in northern Indiana. She was the first deaf person we ever met (as is the case for most hearing parents.) Our first contact was the audiologist, then early intervention, and finally Deaf people. If we had met other Deaf people sooner, I think we could have done a better job of parenting in the first five years of her life.
Don’t get me wrong; we did everything that we were told to do. We enrolled her into a preschool for deaf and hard of hearing children and drove 90 minutes to get there four days a week. Her teachers were all hearing. They used Signing Exact English (SEE), and did this through “sim-com” or simultaneous communication, signing and voicing at the same time. We were communicating, learning signs, and everything seemed to be going well. While Erica was surrounded by peers at school, she had no Deaf teachers. We had no Deaf mentors at home. And the crazy thing is… we didn’t even know the valuable support they had to offer our daughter and to us. Not one of the professionals we had encountered up to this point had mentioned Deaf schools, Deaf teachers, Deaf mentors, or the Deaf community. We never even used the word “Deaf” because all we heard by professionals around us at the time was the term “hearing impaired.”
It wasn’t until one day at preschool, when a Deaf woman came into the school to pick up her child who was in another class, that I realized we were missing something huge. She asked the teacher what they did that day. I watched the hearing preschool teacher sign in SEE, “We put together a puzzle.” The Deaf woman with a huge question on her face signed, “What?” over and over again. This is when a huge light bulb came on in my mind, and I finally figured out the difference between what we were learning and what an actual Deaf person uses when it comes to sign language. The Deaf woman was using ASL, or American Sign Language. The teacher was using the sign for puzzle as used in the concept “I am puzzled” instead of the ASL signs for “put together a puzzle.” No wonder our Erica was frustrated so many times. How many times did this same communication breakdown occur between Erica and us or her teachers? ASL is spatial and concepts, rather than English words, are signed, designed to convey meaning in ASL grammar and syntax rather than a word for word translation of English. While I know some kids can be successful with SEE, it was not a match for our daughter. This is when I knew we had to find Deaf people to be a part of our daughter’s life. That is when our search began.
We found an ASL class at a church and immediately started going. We met a Deaf couple who were so kind and immediately made us feel comfortable. If you know anything about the Deaf community, you know that word spreads fast of new parents who have deaf children. Through them, we met a Deaf family that lived close to our home. One day they invited us to their house. Upon arrival, we noticed the blinking lights when we rang the doorbell: something we had never seen. Their children were teenagers and were hearing so they helped facilitate communication. They introduced us to the technology they use at home; flashing lights, a TTY (old technology now mostly replaced by video relay or captioning services that make the telephone accessible to a deaf or hard of hearing person or texting and emailing) and the use of captions on the television. They shared their feelings on the term “hearing impaired” and how they didn’t feel “impaired” at all. They preferred the term “Deaf.” Even more important, they told us about ISD, the Indiana School for the Deaf. We did know that the school existed, but no one had really sat down to explain in detail about the programs. (The IDEA law and the special considerations section, as well as the stronger Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights passed in many states, now clarifies that all educational options should be discussed with families, including the importance of peers and teachers who can communicate with the child directly in the method of communication the child uses.)
Well long story short, it took us a few years to enroll Erica at ISD. We weren’t ready to make the sacrifice of giving up “comfortable” (home, job, friends, and family) to move three hours away to the unknown for us. We weren’t ready to send her to live there as a dorm student. Instead, we stayed at the preschool and then enrolled her in the local public school for kindergarten where she was mainstreamed. While the staff was wonderful to her, she had no peers to connect with and was treated “special” in Kindergarten. The environment was far from accessible. The teachers and school really didn’t have a full grip on educating deaf children. We realized this was not the “least restrictive environment” nor the most appropriate placement for her. ” Her frustration continued.
In 1991, we decided that we had to move close to ISD…we had procrastinated long enough. It was a huge decision and one of the hardest we ever made. But we did it for Erica. She was more important than anything that we would have to sacrifice.
So we moved and Erica became a day student… meaning she stayed at home and went to ISD during the day. She was going to be a first grader. I’ll never forget the first day of school, when we entered the elementary school and were greeted by a smiling Deaf supervising teacher who immediately engaged Erica into conversation. It was like a ton of bricks were taken off my shoulders. I literally felt the relief. Here Erica was surrounded by flying fingers…peers and staff. We were surrounded by her language. The support we felt was incredible. Here she had an opportunity to be fully immersed into ASL but also English in a bilingual/bicultural environment. No other school in Indiana provided an educational environment even comparable to ISD. It became a school not only for her but for our entire family. Our family’s first day of school began on the same day Erica entered ISD.
The school was far from an ASL- only environment…as there were deaf children who were very verbal and could code switch when communication required it. There were hearing teachers who were fluently bilingual. Spoken language (speech) was taught. English was just as much a priority as ASL. Deaf culture, Deaf history, Deaf arts, and Deaf literature were a part of the curriculum something that she would not have experienced in a public school.
ISD offered all kinds of after school programs, sports, and leadership opportunities. In elementary school she joined Girl Scouts with a Deaf leader, she joined gymnastics with a Deaf teacher, and she got to learn basketball and started playing in fourth grade. She enjoyed having friends spend the night and go to birthday parties with her peers. She was suddenly a very busy girl leading a very normal life. In middle school and high school, sports were her thing. She loved volleyball and basketball. So she had opportunities to travel all over the United States to compete at these schools. Deaf schools from all over the nation compete with each other and that’s how many life-long friendships and networks begin with other Deaf students across the country. Erica attended Proms and Homecoming and was crowned Homecoming queen one year. She actually had more opportunities than her hearing sister in public school.
Summers were never boring for her as she was either busy with summer camps at school or a camper at a variety of Deaf camps in different states where she met more Deaf peers and role models. If she wasn’t at camp, she was with her friends.
She passed all her Indiana state tests on the first attempt and passed her graduation exam and went on to graduate Gallaudet University top of her class. Her network of friends continued to grow. After graduation from college, she decided to travel the world. She had already visited 48 states and many countries including Australia (for Deaf Olympics), Helsinki, Ireland, and Italy (for other Deaf Olympics)… but still had that desire to travel.
At the age of 24, she traveled to Europe and Asia. She planned it all out on her own, paid for it on her own, and traveled alone. The Deaf community is all over the world and each country has its own sign language. Her first stop was in Finland where she stayed with a Deaf friend and where she volunteered at the International Federation of the Deaf. She stayed in Sweden with another Deaf friend and even learned a bit of Swedish Sign Language. She flew to London to visit friends, went to Switzerland and on to Germany to stay with a Deaf family. She went to Thailand, Bali, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. In Indonesia she stayed with a Deaf husband and wife who were artists. In Cambodia she volunteered in a small village, Kampot, at a café run by a Deaf woman from California. Her network of friends made it easy for her to meet other people in the world’s Deaf community. She was never alone in her travels.
Erica has seen and done more than her Dad and I could have ever imagined. She is one of the most independent and self-confident people we know. She is kind, caring, smart and self-confident. She has never said she wants or needs to be hearing. She loves her life. She is proud to be Deaf. She lives in both the Deaf and the Hearing world independently.
This I believe did not happen by chance, but happened because we made it a priority to put her “first” in order to get her into an educational environment full of Deaf teachers, mentors, staff and peers. People who she could learn from, connect to, and communicate freely without effort in her own language of ASL. Erica isn’t isolated from the Hearing world but lives in it with great enthusiasm.
Erica is now a young woman and lives in California. She is surrounded by friends and mega-systems of support through all the networks of people she has met throughout her life. She is now one of those Deaf mentors and a role model to young deaf and hard of hearing kids just starting their journeys. She has come full circle.
Editor’s note: Tami and Jeff Hossler moved from Indianapolis ten years ago and now live near Fort Myers, Florida and are active in Florida Hands & Voices.