The Best Gift of the Season?
Inclusion for our Deaf/HH Child
Written by Brooke Montgomery & Sara Kennedy, Hands & Voices
As parents of children who are deaf, one of our main concerns has always been inclusion. Will he feel left out? Would she want to avoid large family gatherings? The last thing we want is for a child to wish the holiday is over quickly.
We have taken to heart the stories from deaf and hard of hearing (d/hh) adults about feeling like a stranger in the holiday celebrations. Visions of any child retreating to a corner at a holiday gathering to avoid awkward interactions is heartbreaking. And it is a call to action and empathy.
However your child communicates, holiday gatherings can be challenging. Background noise, unfamiliar people in the mix, potential lack of understanding from extended family and friends, fast-paced discussions, other kids and cousins, and even winter darkness can all add up to a black-diamond level of difficulty communicating.
Many parents who have a child who is d/hh have watched them struggle to track the conversations at family gatherings. We trust relationships will develop naturally over time, but in that moment, that struggle, or seeing a child give up altogether, feels unacceptable. Even a child with good access to language may find that few in their holiday circle know how to communicate with them clearly. By setting some intentions, parents can help bridge the communication gap between a child growing up with the unique experience of being d/hh and other individuals who are part of our traditions and family history.
Preparing for visits:
- Ask your child or guest who is d/hh for ideas on how to make the gathering more enjoyable. Many accommodations can be arranged before the event.
- If the holiday event involves family members the child has not seen recently, share pictures and help the child get familiar with names and stories before the event. Draw a family tree with your child and label with pictures when possible. Smartphones and social media can help!
- If your child uses technology, be prepared. Make sure remote mics are charged.
- Consider downloading speech-to-text apps and let your guests know about this option. (Ava, Otter.ai, and many others) Apple devices also have live captioning that can caption external conversation or audio content from inside the device (music, podcasts, or videos playing on the phone).
- Let family members know your child’s communication preference in advance. If your child communicates with ASL or cued language, send a cheat sheet to family members and include vocabulary for things your child is interested in. Go beyond superficial conversations. If your child uses listening and spoken language, let guests know that this will be difficult in crowds.
- Remind them they should repeat themselves when asked. We try never to say “nevermind” or “I’ll tell you later” in our homes. You may not intend to cause harm, but brushing your child off this way is hurtful and frustrating. Take the time to repeat or write it down on paper or on an app. Better yet, figure out how to include your child in conversations by encouraging turn-taking and visuals your child may need.
- Consider pooling your money together to hire an interpreter or cued language transliterator if your child uses one in other settings.
- When appropriate, allow your child to bring a d/hh friend to the gathering.
During the Gathering:
- People who are d/hh understand the need to get their attention to communicate. Polite ways to do this are to tap their shoulder, give a quick hand wave, or tap the table. To make a general announcement to all, quickly flick the light switch.
- For children who use sign, leave some books on the coffee table for guests who are intrigued and want to learn more. Plan a video for kids in ASL. For cued language, leave out a handful of cueing charts for guests to use.
- Create an inclusive environment:
- Pay attention to decorations. Large centerpieces that block sightlines of guests make it hard for those relying on visual communication and/or lipreading.
- Kids can create personalized placecards to help everyone know each other’s names/relationships.
- Turn up the lights. Dim lighting makes it difficult for communication, reading lips, reading body language and facial expressions.
- Limit noise. Avoid any unnecessary background noise, including music when conversations are happening. Tablecloths and other textiles help to reduce unwanted background noise that can interfere with communication.
- Have captions on full time for any screens in use.
- Keep your child engaged and involved in the festivities to allow them to feel more included.
- Include your child in the cooking duties. Create a visual drink menu for your child to “take orders” of all the guests.
- Ask guests to slow down the conversation and take turns when talking. It is common in a group of hearing individuals to all talk at once, which makes it very hard for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing to follow along.
- Let guests know that talking loudly, shouting or exaggerating words such as talking “v e r y s l o w l y” is not helpful. It actually makes lipreading and reading facial expressions more difficult and draws unwanted attention that might embarrass the child.
- Keep plenty of notepads, pens, Magna doodles, white boards or devices handy for anyone who wants to communicate through writing/drawing.
- Encourage your child to sit in the center of the table for best visual and auditory access.
- Provide hands-on activities for children. Coloring sheets, craft projects and card games or board games are a great way to encourage playing together. Avoid games that require shouting out answers first; that puts the d/hh child at a disadvantage. Turn taking games are fun for everyone. Similarly, fast paced games that leave no time for talking can be a nice change. Some of our other favorite games and activities are:
- Uno, Skipbo and other card games
- Jenga and other building toys
- Cooking & serving the meal/drinks
- Outdoor activities such as building a snowman or playing a sport
Finally, create opportunities for one-on-one interactions with your child. Making dessert or running an errand with an adult, even looking at a photo album together or spending time doing something your child particularly enjoys can foster relationships between your child and aunts/uncles/grandparents and adult friends. Throughout the time, parents should check in with children periodically to make sure they are feeling included. Watch for listening fatigue and encourage your child to take breaks as needed. Communicating with others is hard work!
At the end of the day, we can’t force our family members and friends to learn new things or adapt. At the same time, your child shouldn’t be forced into awkward conversations or hugs when they are not comfortable. Continue to gently encourage those friends or family members to learn more about your child’s communication preferences. As parents, we can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to model inclusion for others. Use these tips to prepare what you can, and when the time comes, relax, knowing you have done your best. Do focus on celebrating those who do make an effort to include your child. Happy, joyful gatherings count as positive childhood experiences that can help a child be more resilient for any struggle ahead. Celebrate that joy and you may just uncover a little magic of the season!