Clinging onto a large bunch of helium balloons, I waited in the school office for assembly to start. Passing staff and children would have been forgiven for assuming that I was a hired clown for some kind of entertainment. Innately, I’m not a lover of attention. This journey has seen me having to get over myself in that regard….and the 9 brightly coloured swellings seemingly suspended in midair, certainly shone the spotlight. I had been invited to speak about deafness and sign language at a local school for a national sign language awareness day. It’s funny how life works….3 years ago, I hadn’t given this creative form of expression a second thought, 2 years ago, it’s unfamiliarity terrified me, and on this day…I felt like a proud ambassador – excited to share a little of what I’ve learned over the past 2 years with a whole primary school of intrigued children.
I would be addressing two different assemblies…the first all the littlies, and the second, the bigger kids. Their teachers would be there too of course. Thanks to previous advice from a deaf friend in America, I had a few ideas up my sleeve….
I decided to keep the message fun and simple for the first group. I started with asking for examples of different languages. The kids were enthusiastic, “French, English, Afrikaans, Zulu ,Chinese (I just nodded at this one)” were all volunteered from various directions. Great, the scene had been set to acknowledge sign language as not just a fun visual tool, but a complete language of its own, just like any other. We moved onto discussing “feelings” that deaf people may experience in a world where no one tries to communicate with them, a silent world that generally does not embrace people who are different from what is known to be comfortable.
“Lonely”, “shy”, “sad” and even “deaf” were some of the suggestions. Again, I just smiled and nodded at the last one, wanting all these bright faces to know that their input was greatly appreciated. After calling on 9 volunteers, an enthusiastic army of juniors, marched onto the stage, excited to participate. This was where the helium balloons came in. Silently praying that not one would escape to the lofty ceiling of the school hall, I started to teach them the various colours, with little reminders that I used when first learning them that helped me remember. The children enjoyed that and we had no balloon casualties. This session was concluded with learning the basic greetings and courtesies in sign language, such as “Thank you” and “Hello, how are you?” and the children were left with a charge to embrace those different to themselves.
It was during the second session that I felt a little magic happen. Instead of helium balloons, I had taken 5 different fruit. The children had been shown the fruit so that they knew what to expect, and invited to help me with an experiment. Enthusiastically they agreed. I explained that I was going to switch off my voice (which would be the same as them switching off their ears) and silently say “I want a…..peach,” for example and then they would have to guess which fruit I was referring to. There were only 5 different pieces, of which they could see sitting next to me on the stage…visual reminders of what their options were… should be easy? We identified that it would be easier for the children sitting nearer the front, as they would have a clearer view of my lips.
“Right, are you all ready to switch off those ears and help me with our experiment?” I asked. Eagerly they nodded.
I then silently mouthed, “I want a banana.”
A hand from the gallery at the back shot up, “Banana!” he shouted.
“Wow, you are Superman!” I replied…. “Did everyone else get that?” A sea of blank stares gazed at this little boy in amazement. “Apart from Super Eyes at the back there, the rest of you would agree that it was hard to see what I was asking for?” They all agreed.
“Okay, 4 left….let’s try a few others.” I then slowly went through the remaining fruit, asking for each silently, without an interruption. There was the odd guess, but not one child could accurately identify which fruit I was mentioning. Not one. “Well, it’s hard to see words being spoken, isn’t it?” They all, a little despondent after continuous failure, agreed. “So, let’s continue with our experiment then. I’m now going to teach you the signs for these same fruit, and then we will all try again.”
It took about one minute to teach the signs for banana, apple, orange, pineapple and peach. “Okay are you ready to switch off those ears again?” I then began to sign, “I want an apple.” Hands started flying up from all over the hall.
After an enthusiastic thumbs up, I continued, signing one fruit at a time. Every single child, without exception, understood which fruit was being asked for each time. The experiment was, unsurprisingly, a success. If you cannot hear, visual support certainly makes a difference! And these 200 little participants, suggested a rather phenomenal difference,indeed.
The energy in the hall was tangible, as the children (and hopefully staff too) had been part of something that they had previously hugely underestimated. I brought back some calm with a closing question and urged for honest responses.
“So, who of you think that it is bad to be deaf?” some hesitant hands crawled up sheepishly. I thanked them for their honesty, and interjected with an honest admission from my side.
“My 3 little girls are all deaf, and when I first found that out, I did think that it was a very bad thing to be deaf, so it’s okay to be honest with me, I understand.” Arms started sneaking up for me to see from all over the room, in acknowledgement that deafness, to them, seemed a negative thing indeed.
“Well, what if I were to tell you that deaf people…deaf children even…have special powers!?” Wanting to expose these kids to the one thing that has shifted my way of thinking – the concept of deaf gain, I explored a few examples of benefits of being deaf from having sharp eyes, a sharp sense of smell, being able to sleep through horrible noises and a few other simple ideas that I knew they would understand, using stories from my own girls to reinforce the example. I could feel my face glowing as I spoke about my girls. What a delight they are! Not only have they changed my world upside down and inside out for the better, but they are indirectly teaching large groups of hearing children about the deaf world. Intrigued children today…leaders that can change the future for children like mine, tomorrow. We ended off with a reminder that things that we are not familiar with, aren’t necessarily bad, but sometimes, just, different – and that’s quite okay.
The morning’s session ended perfectly. Mr Super Eyes from the gallery, who had been the only child to successfully lip read me, volunteered an explanation. He explained that he had been born with a hearing loss, so had developed the special power of being able to lip read. That was a moment of pure magic!