Deaf Children and Bilingualism

Last week I was invited to represent the Maltese Sign Language Council (Kunsill tal-Lingwa tas-Sinjali Maltija), together with my colleague Mr George Vella, to participate in the celebrations of the first ever International Day of Sign Languages, held at the United Nations Office at Geneva. We went with Hon. Anthony Agius Decelis, the Parliamentary Secretary for Persons with Disability and Active Ageing.

The experience was nothing short of amazing. We met with Rachel Shenton, screenwriter, actress and oscar winner of The Silent Child Film, and spoke about sign language, accessibility and inclusion, and how the brilliant film advocates the importance of sign language usage. She is hearing and her British Sign Language (BSL) is really good! We also participated in all the activities, discussed hot topics about sign language during high level panels, met with Deaf experts from other countries, and promoted Maltese Sign Language.

One of the topics we discussed was about deaf children and their accessibility for education. Currently, our main concern is the deaf and hard of hearing children. Parents today wrongly assume that if their deaf or hard of hearing child learns sign language, it will hinder their speech. Many medical professionals are partially to blame, as they are giving this wrong information to parents. Consequently, parents decide that their deaf children do not learn sign language. With such decision, the parents are unknowingly damaging their deaf children’s future. When children learn how to speak, they-still-cannot-hear. It does not matter how good their spoken language gets, these children still cannot access information due to their deafness.

Believe it or not, deaf children are capable of being bilingual. They can learn how to speak and how to sign! Learning both languages would be so valuable for them. Some think that if children learn how to sign, they will be unable to learn how to speak clearly. Yet, if they do not manage to use the spoken language so clearly, it would be due to their deafness and not due to the sign language. And even so.. if these deaf children feel more comfortable expressing themselves in sign language, which is also Deaf people’s natural language, so be it. Why should they be stopped? What makes sign language inferior to the spoken language? Just because sign language is not the language used by the majority, it does not mean that it should not be used. Language deprivation for deaf children should be prevented, and this is possible by embracing sign language.

I must also explain that the structure and grammar of a spoken sentence are different from those of a signed sentence. People mistakenly think that Deaf people do not know how to speak, when in reality they may be using the grammar and structure of sign language, when speaking.

Oh, and did I mention that deaf people who have a cochlear implant would also benefit from using sign language? Having a cochlear implant does not mean that the person can hear like the hearing community. Using sign language would actually be instrumental for those with a cochlear implant, as this way they can have more accessibility to things they are unable to hear clearly. Yup!

I was 6 when I lost my hearing, so I learned the spoken language first. I taught myself how to lipread, and finally started to learn sign language when I was 26 years old. You wouldn’t believe the opportunities I’ve had since I learned sign language, and the improvement in my quality of life. I started to access so much more information, that I cannot get enough! My only regret is that I did not learn sign language when I was young.

I can already see you shaking your heads and saying that it is easy for me to say that children who are born deaf can be bilingual. But first, let me explain further:

  • By the time I was 6 years old, my spoken language using my mother tongue (Maltese) came natural. My writing skills, not so much. My spoken and written English skills, like many other kids at my age, were not so good either. At all. Learning how to speak during the first 6 years of my life had nothing to do with my current excellent writing and speaking skills. So how did I do it? Well, books happened. At the age of 7 or 8, I started reading books, both in Maltese and English. And my love for books meant that my spoken and writing skills improved. Not so much my pronunciation of the words though. To this day, I still mispronounce words due to never hearing them – so I pronounce some words incorrectly by saying them the way I read them (is the word “myth” pronounced as “MIT” or “MYT” ?! )
  • I met with so many professional Deaf people when I was at Geneva, such as Dr. Tatjana Binggeli from the Swiss Federation of the Deaf, Dr. Joseph Murray from the World Federation of the Deaf, and Mr Mark Wheatley from the European Union of the Deaf, amongst others. I also crossed paths with many other Deaf experts during the past 5 years, such as Dr. Humberto Insolera from the European Disability Forum, Dr. Luigi Lerose from the European Network of Sign Language Teachers, and Helga Stevens, a Member of the European Parliament, to name a few. All of whom have a high educational and academic background. Their first language is sign language, yet this did not stop them from achieving a high-status and successful career.
  • In Malta (and Gozo, of course!), the number of Deaf persons who have furthered their education and obtained a diploma or a degree is very low. Moreover, I have yet to meet with Deaf persons who have obtained a Master’s and Doctoral Degrees. This is unacceptable. Deaf people in Malta and Gozo are capable of achieving advanced educational degree levels. Unfortunately, this is not happening due to the lack of resources as well as the lack of awareness. This also means that they do not have high-paying and high-status career opportunities.

Is it really worth sacrificing the child’s education, future, and quality of life, by choosing to teach them the spoken language only, while rejecting sign language? NO! Language acquisition is crucial for everyone, and it is a basic human right. Deaf children need access to sign language from birth.

And for the love of God – make time and read books. Books are the best educators, not just for deaf people but for everyone!

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Yes, I speak.. and it does not make me any less Deaf!

When I was younger, my mother joined me for any appointment that I had. Going by myself would mean that I may not understand or follow everything, due to my deafness. Yet, as I grew older, as much as I appreciated my mother’s constant patience, support, and assistance, doctors or people spoke to my mother instead of speaking to me directly. I was in my 20s, it made me feel like I was 10, and I resented this feeling with every fibre of my being.

When I was 26 years old, I made a decision – I started to learn the Maltese Sign Language, which enabled me to use the sign language interpreting service. This meant that I could go anywhere I wanted without requiring assistance, as I could understand what was being said thanks to the interpreters. And just like that, my world turned for the better. I was exposed to something amazing. For the first time, I tasted INDEPENDENCE. I could go anywhere I needed to go by myself, as the interpreters were my brand new ears. And boy, did I love it!

The other day, I had a long-overdue appointment at hospital at the Ear Nose Throat (ENT) Department. I had a sign language interpreter booked, to ensure that I can understand and follow everything during the visit. I was happy to see the doctor again, as I have known him for more than 20 years, and it had been years since I saw him last. Yet, as much as I respect him, I must admit that I was disappointed. When I introduced the sign language interpreter, he was a bit taken aback and asked ‘But why?! You can speak so well!’

Yes, I must admit that my spoken language is good. I can talk, I can be a chatterbox, and I can give you a headache 🙂 But – newsflash – that does not make me any less Deaf! And that’s what I told the doctor. Although I can speak, and although I can lipread, I still need the interpreter to be my ears. I need the interpreter to translate the spoken language – which I cannot fully hear – into sign language. And I would much rather use the sign language interpreting service when I have appointments, meetings, lectures, (you name it), rather than ask my mother or my husband or my friend, to join me and repeat for me. Because I like my independence.

Don’t take me wrong. I will be forever grateful for the support and assistance provided by those dear to me, including family and friends. To this day, they are willing to help and support me when required. But I must admit that I am relieved to be able to have the opportunity to use the sign language interpreting service, because independence is really sweet!

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Deaf mother in a foreign country

Dear followers.. You may have wondered why I have been away from A Silent World during the past months. It is true that I have not been posting, and this was due to my daughter being hospitalised. I had to let go of everything and focus on her well being. Last December, when just 7 months old, the symptoms of my daughter’s condition started to surface, which led her to being hospitalised several weeks on end at Mater Dei Hospital in Malta. While waiting for her diagnosis, her life was in danger and she – almost – did not live. She was admitted to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH) in London, where we spent 3 months, living and breathing hospital 24/7. My daughter will live with a rare condition, but the little warrior is doing very well today. Yet, this post is not about my daughter, and I do not want pity, charity, or anything of the sort. This post is about me as a Deaf mother, whose daughter was diagnosed with a rare condition, leading us to live in a hospital for a while, away from home, dealing non stop with consultants, specialists, experts, doctors and nurses who, obviously, did not speak my mother tongue. The language used was English, and although I can FULLY understand and speak English, I still find it very very difficult to read on the lips, unlike the Maltese language. There I was, a Deaf mother in a foreign country, trying to frickin understand what these medical experts were saying. My husband is hearing, he could repeat to me anything that was being said, of course. But my daughter’s life was on the line during the first few weeks – can you imagine how terrifying it was, not understanding IMMEDIATELY what was being said, watching closely everyone’s facial expressions to try and see whether they were telling us good or bad news, waiting in agony for them to finish so that my husband can repeat and tell.me.what.was.said. It was already excruciatingly painful that our daughter was in a bad state. My husband was having a hard time too, finding it difficult to repeat everything, especially when it was bad news. He had to painfully digest the information and force himself to repeat to me, knowing all too well how much it would hurt me. Some doctors wrote a summary on a paper for me or spoke slowly so that I can try follow. I did manage to read lips sometimes, but not everything. I was also asking the same questions that I didn’t know my husband asked already, wasting precious time. I did NOT want a summary, nor did I want to wait for my husband to repeat. I NEEDED A SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETER WHO COULD INTERPRET EVERY SINGLE THING THAT THE MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS WERE TELLING US, THERE AND THEN! I urgently needed access to everything that was being said, whether during a meeting or during a crisis that my daughter was having. The hospital offered a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter, but unfortunately I only know the Maltese Sign Language (LSM), which is different from BSL. Since we did not know for how long we would be staying at GOSH, as it all depended on my daughter’s recovery, the sign language interpreters in Malta could not come to London. But we found a solution, which was such a great relief for both myself and my husband. I agreed with the sign language interpreters that I would use their service by making a video call with them when required. They would listen LIVE to what was being said, and interpret for me there and then. This way I could follow more easily, and from then onward, things were less frustrating. I could also ask any questions I had (which my husband didn’t ask, as the interpreters would have signed anything he said too) more easily, with the interpreters signing the professionals’ answers. Using their service during the 3 months that we spent at hospital was a blessing during such a difficult time. Heartfelt thanks to Sign Interpreting Malta – who made my life so much easier! I am also grateful for my husband’s love, support and patience ♡ If you are reading this and you are deaf or hard of hearing, or have children who are so, and you do not use sign language.. I hope you take me seriously when I say that even though you may be doing well without sign language, even if you can speak, believe me when I say that learning and using sign language would make your life even better than it is now. You would have more access to information, not only during emergency situations as you can see from my personal story, but to oh so many more things! It is not true that children cannot learn how to speak if they learn sign language. That’s a myth. And even if the deaf person prefers not to use the spoken language, then that is up to him / her. But ALWAYS KEEP IN MIND that if you or your children are deaf / hard of hearing, using sign language would only mean that accessibility to what is being said is actually possible. Promise ♡

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How can a Speech Language Therapist Help my Child with Hearing Loss?

The role of the speech language therapist is to facilitate communication and teach strategies for the child to acquire language including both comprehension and expression. Another task is to improve speech abilities for effective communication to take place. In fact speech therapists world-wide are commonly known as communication therapists.

Although it may be obvious for some, it is significant to point out the differences between speech and language. Children particularly those with hearing loss, have difficulties to acquire a language, let alone to speak. For this reason, early diagnosis of the hearing loss, good quality amplification and early intervention are essential. Together with the speech and language therapist, a lot of effort and practice needs to be done if the child still has not grasped a language. Secondary to this the therapists work on clear speech production. Depending on the child’s preferred mode of communication and preferred language, the therapy sessions occur being it both verbal (speech) or visual (signs) communication.

Besides promoting and monitoring good hearing amplification, during speech therapy sessions, it is indispensable for the speech therapist to keep in mind communication goals. Therapy goals depend on the child’s strengths and weaknesses and every child is very different hence the goals are child specific and need to be very flexible. Ideally total communication is used as it works best for most. This means that both visual and auditory communication strategies are enforced during intervention sessions. Research has taught us that signs enhance production of speech and not the other way round. In fact many parents who have hearing babies opt to teach them baby signing at a very early stage and the results are extraordinary. This should be no less for children with hearing loss.

For sessions to be beneficial it is also crucial to work within a multidisciplinary team; the parents and other family members, school staff such as LSAs and teachers, other professionals involved and last but surely not least the child himself/herself!

The speech therapist can do a lot for children with various degrees of hearing loss, but unless he/she works within a team the outcomes are minimal. It is strongly suggested that parents discuss issues and concerns with their therapist in order to build goals together. They should move forward together in the same direction. At the end of the day the speech therapist’s duty is to provide support to the child and of course the family in order to facilitate successful communication strategies and positive social well-being. Every child is unique and so is the therapy process.

Ms Rita Portelli is a qualified Speech Language Pathologist and Sign Language Interpreter . She completed a Degree in BSc. (Hons) Communication Therapy at the University of Malta and is currently completing a Masters Degree in Disability Studies.

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How can I deal with Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the ears with no external sound source. This can take various forms, such as buzzing, ringing, hissing or clicking. Although many people may experience it in some form or other throughout their lifetime, it is only when it becomes more frequent and bothersome that it starts becoming a problem.

Medical help should be the first stop for someone with this issue to make sure that there are no underlying medical problems that need to be addressed. In many cases the tinnitus is not a direct threat to health, in the sense that it may be related to age, hearing loss or injury and does not require any significant medical intervention. That said, it may still be a significant cause of stress for the patient suffering from this condition. If you, or a person close to you, suffer from this condition, it is important to acknowledge that it is absolutely normal to feel stressed. Stress is a big factor in how tinnitus is perceived and it is not beneficial to get stressed about the fact that you got stressed in the first place. This should be the starting point from where you do something about what you are feeling. Some options include:

– Hearing aids: In some cases, there might be a hearing loss. Because of this, the tinnitus is perceived to be louder in the absence of sound. Simply correcting the hearing loss might be enough to reduce the perception of tinnitus.

– Use of sound: Keeping a fan or radio on, or using a noise generator (which produces background noise such as white noise of other constant sound) introduces noise which may make the tinnitus sound quieter.

– Psychological help: Counselling and Cognitive behavioural therapy are useful in accepting and dealing with the tinnitus by giving you tools to deal with the condition.

– Specialised programmes: Programmes such as Tinnitus retraining therapy are therapies specifically catering for tinnitus.

– Relaxation techniques: Use of breathing techniques, meditation and activities such as yoga and tai chi may help reduce overall levels of stress and affect tinnitus perception.

– Support groups: Finding groups (local or online) where you can discuss what you are feeling might be a way for you to accept and understand your condition a bit more. However, it is important to keep in mind with this option that you should be very careful of using untested treatments just because someone suggested them (especially online). In such cases, always seek advice from a trained professional.

As seen above, there are various options and while some may be beneficial, others might not be the right option for you. So it’s important to try different treatments or combinations of treatments until you find the right one for you. Do consult with an audiologist. The important thing is not to get discouraged when the first thing you try does not work. With tinnitus, one should understand and accept that it is a process. We are all unique in our own way, there might not be a quick fix, but it’s just a matter of slowly finding what works for you.

Mr Nicholas Desira is in the final stages of becoming a fully qualified audiologist after training in the UK at the University of Southampton. Nicholas is particularly interested in the use of assistive listening devices and vestibular disorders but is passionate about all aspects of audiology.

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The Subtitler: A Job Description

The subtitler is responsible for subtitling the transcribed audio version of any audio-visual material which needs subtitles to be displayed on a visual medium. The subtitles can be either intralingual (transcribed text then turned into subtitles) or interlingual (transcribed text then translated before being turned into subtitles) and either created in advance, or partially prepared or fully created in real-time in the case of a non-recording.

Before work on a subtitling solution actually starts, one must carefully identify and analyse ‘the three main pillars of subtitling’, which determine the success or failure of the created solution – audience, purpose, and context.

No subtitling solution is equally adequate to any two target audiences with different auditory levels. Hence this calls for a tailor made solution to either:

  • The hearing;
  • The deaf using an oral language as their mother tongue;
  • The Deaf belonging to linguistic minority groups that use a sign language as their first language; or
  • The hard of hearing having residual hearing and can therefore share the experience of sound and of the world of hearers to different degrees.

With one of the above audiences in mind, setting a purpose provides a context, and vice-versa. Just like the sign language interpreter (SLI), the subtitler uses the tailor-made subtitles to bridge the gap between any of the target audiences and any speaker one can think of, hence the infinite situations in which they can be used.

Subtitles as an educational means imprint on our minds a classroom environment; and as an entertaining means, a cinema, a living room or a bedroom desk, where one or more people are watching a movie, a program, or a music video respectively; just to mention a few.

The resulting benefits are immeasurable; subtitles in any context are excellent and have the potential to help educate and improve the children’s ability to learn and read, helping them improve other skills whilst developing new ones. However, they are equally useful to people of various ages all with a different story.

The subtitler has to reflect and complement all this through the actual subtitles and the way they are presented, paying special attention to the different reading speeds, the editing levels of the transcribed text and the different ways in which each of the above audiences relate to sound (speech, sound effects and music), whilst being constrained by the available time and space.

Some of the questions a subtitler must ask when working on the subtitles are: Is it better to present the subtitles…

  • with this particular number of CPL (characters per line) or with that number of CPL?
  • on one line or two lines?
  • joined together as one subtitle, left as they are, or split into two or more?
  • at this particular time, slightly before, or slightly after?
  • for this amount of seconds or for that amount of seconds?
  • flashing in and flashing out, or floating in and floating out?
  • in a sans-serif font or another?
  • using bold, italics and/or underlined or not?
  • in a smaller or a larger font size?
  • in a colour instead of another?
  • with or without a background, and in what colour?
  • identifying speakers using a particular colour or using a special marker?
  • identifying music using musical instruments, the song and the singer/band, or by giving a description of the melody?
  • reduced to fit the time and space constraints, leave them as they are, or even possibly fit more information if the time and space allow it?
  • for some even more extra seconds to enhance readability or will that hinder coherence with the audio-visual elements?

Upon completion, the subtitles are then finalised and delivered to the end user, helping him/her achieving his/her goals. Should any subtitles be needed for any kind of audio-visual material, one can send an e-mail to Reuben De Gabriele on rbndgbrl15@gmail.com

Reuben De Gabriele, a graduate in Master of Arts in Translation and Terminology Studies, has subtitled season 1 of the Maltese TV drama Strada Stretta and is currently working on season 2. Updates as to when the subtitled episodes are online will be posted on the Facebook pages of A Silent World and Deaf People Association – Malta.

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Back to School

It’s back-to-school for most students on Monday in Malta. Do you have a son or a daughter who is deaf or hard of hearing? Do you have a Deaf student in class?
Advice for Parents
For parents who have Deaf children, going back to school involves more preparation than simply buying new pencils and fresh sheets of paper.
– Do meet with the teachers and with the head of school. Give them as much details as possible about hearing loss, to help them understand how best to communicate with & teach your son/daughter.
– Ensure that your child is seated in the front row to be able to read the teachers’ lips clearly.
– Do consider a Sign Language Interpreter as they will greatly help Deaf students to excel in class (promise!). Children who are deaf or hard of hearing can excel in class like their hearing peers, if provided with the right resources. 
– Do book a check up with an audiologist if needed. 

Advice for Teachers
Keep in mind that Deaf students have as much potential as the other students if they are helped with the right resources. It can be a great challenge for you to make the lesson accessible. However, the challenge can be easily eliminated. Here are some tips:
– It will be easier for the student to follow the lesson if sitting at the front.
-It is very important that when you are talking, you are facing the Deaf student. Avoid talking while walking around the class or while writing on the whiteboard, as the student needs to read your lips easily.
– Do try using as much visuals as possible, like powerpoints or videos, to make it easier for the student to understand the lesson. The other students will love the visuals too.
– If you are showing a video, use subtitles. If the video you want to show has no subtitles, pause the video every now and then, to explain what is being said.
– If you are doing group discussions, do ensure the Deaf student can see what everyone is saying by having everyone sit in a circle with no obstructions blocking the view of the other participants. You can also repeat or rephrase for the Deaf student to ensure that the student is following.
– Taking notes can be difficult as the deaf or hard of hearing student will be unable to read your lips while writing at the same time. In this case, you can tell the Deaf student to just listen without taking notes. The student can then make a copy of the another student’s notes. Otherwise you can give the student a copy of your notes.
– If the student is still lagging behind, do ask the student, the student’s parents, the head of the school, or even the Deaf People Association – Malta or the Gozo Association for the Deaf for more information on how you can help the Deaf student in class, before it’s too late.
– Do suggest to the Deaf student or his/her parent a sign language interpreter, as they can help to make the lesson more accessible.

Best of Luck with this new scholastic year! 🙂

 

back-to-school

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