Deaf & HH Adults

Nabeel Keblawi: It All Started with Cheese

I was diagnosed with a severe-to-profound hearing loss and fitted with hearing aids at a year old. My parents, Feisal and Suhad Keblawi, immediately started searching for an educational program for deaf children. First, they placed me in an oral program because they were encouraged by one teacher’s success in that program.

A woman with dark rim glasses and man with medium skin standing next to each other.
Nabeel with his Vietnamese wife, Hang. They both reside in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Unfortunately for me, the oral program did not help me learn the necessary language skills to communicate with my parents, siblings, extended family members, and friends. At home my parents would struggle to understand what I was trying to say. I’d have temper tantrums almost daily because I didn’t know how to express my thoughts, wants, and needs. This went on for two years. We were one frustrated family!

My parents decided to move me to another program. I was already three years old and had virtually no language, so we were running out of time for language development. I began the sign language preschool program at Mantua Elementary School. In the summer of ‘83, my family and I attended a one-week Family Learning Vacation at Gallaudet University to learn sign language. During that week, parents attended sign language classes while children learned sign language through play, field trips, and participating in arts and crafts.

I proved to be a quick learner. On the second day of the Family Learning Vacation, when I needed to go to the restroom with a teacher, I got stuck in one of the stalls. I tried to open the stall door but it wouldn’t budge. There was about a foot of space between the stall door and the floor, so I put my hands under the door and signed the word help. The teacher saw it and helped me out. It was the first word I had ever used in any language.

Over the next year, I learned sign language so rapidly that my parents could hardly keep up. Their signing vocabulary was limited so communication broke down sometimes. Each time they came across a word they didn’t know the sign for, they’d stop mid-sentence, open the sign language book, flip the pages, and look up the sign for that word. There were many words for which there was no sign. My parents tried fingerspelling these words, but fingerspelling did not mean anything to a four-year-old with a short attention span.

While I was at Mantua, my father was elected president of the parent organization Hear NOVA, where parents of deaf children in Fairfax County got together to share experiences and exchange ideas. One night my father attended a technology fair where he met Dr. Orin Cornett, who invented Cued Speech.

After listening to Dr. Cornett’s explanation of how Cued Speech worked, my father came home that night brimming with excitement. He tried to convince my mother to switch me over to Cued Speech, but my mother was skeptical at first. My parents were invited to Dr. Cornett’s home, where he explained it in more detail and showed them videos of kids and their families using Cued Speech.

One film showed a four-year-old boy and his mother. The mother cued and asked the boy whether he wanted parmesan or mozzarella cheese on his pasta, and the boy replied with his choice. The entire conversation was in English using Cued Speech. That got my mother’s attention because I had a very discriminating taste for cheese. I have had countless temper tantrums because I didn’t like the taste of certain cheeses that my mother picked up from the store. All she could do was sign to me: yellow cheese or white cheese. Fingerspelling the actual brand names was neither an option for a parent muddling through sign language, nor for a hungry, frustrated, and impatient four-year-old toddler.

Mom never knew if I wanted the Wisconsin, New York, or Colby, and those were just a few of the cheddar brands. Maybe I did not always want cheddar. Or, even if I wanted cheddar, there were the creamy, mild, medium, and sharp kinds. The options at the grocery store were endless. Some days I wanted the sharp. Other days I wanted the creamier stuff. My tastes kept changing every day and there was no way my parents could figure out what I wanted just by using sign language.

Seeing that film of a mother cueing the exact names of the cheeses convinced my mother that we should switch to Cued Speech. A major benefit of Cued Speech was that my parents didn’t have to change the language to talk with me, and they could speak naturally like any other parent talking to their child. So my parents switched me to the Cued Speech Program at Beech Tree Elementary School. Before I enrolled at Beech Tree, my parents hired Ms. Kathy Lovette, who was to be my teacher at Beech Tree, to get my family and I up to speed on Cued Speech by the time the school year began.

A year after I learned Cued Speech, I knew all the cheese brands, as well as everything between creamy and extra sharp. I could describe the taste and texture in excruciating detail, and I could tell my mother exactly what type of cheese I wanted on my pasta or sandwich. Before long, she knew exactly what to get from the store. Over the years, the benefits of Cued Speech extended far beyond knowing the brands of the cheeses I liked.

Cued Speech helped raise my English level to among the top in my class with hearing peers, got me into a coveted university for a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology and a Master’s degree in Atmospheric Science, and into well-paying jobs long after graduation. I worked in Houston, Texas at EDP Renewables, a renewable energy company. I now live in Vietnam and own a copywriting and technical writing business with international clients. My parents and my sister, Jill, still cue with me to this day.

And I love a good Brie!

Nabeel Keblawi, a self-employed writer, loves to travel the world and has found his place in life. He was born deaf and learned how to cue when he was five-years-old. He still cues to this day, is fluent in both English and ASL, and is now studying Vietnamese.


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