Making Sense in Sign: A Lifeline for a Deaf Child

Next year will mark 15 years since the publication of Jenny Froude’s book Making Sense in Sign: A Lifeline for a Deaf Child, inspired by her profoundly deaf son, Tom. In this post, Jenny updates us on Tom’s story (he is now a father himself!) and reflects on her experience as a parent of a deaf child.

Tom relaxing at home with his family

When my book about my profoundly deaf son (now being reprinted, to order) was launched in 2003, I handed him a copy saying “This is your life Tom – and you can write the sequel”! He rashly agreed, saying and signing that I would have to wait another 20 years! Despite his language in emails being so expressive, I doubt he will be doing that, as he’s too busy working, creating a home and, above all, enjoying his young family with his deaf wife.

It was texts that alerted me to the good news of their births. “It’s baby girl, Daisy Mary Froude … natural birth no drugs used. Both doing well” and, 28 months later “it happened all so fast. So we got beautiful boy Oliver. Came into this world 7.08 p.m.  Not weighted (sic) yet”. I loved his wording;  not a bald “born” but four words that gave more gravity to the event. Both babies were born three weeks early, in a tremendous hurry to arrive, and both passed, as expected, their Newborn Hearing Screening.

In my book, two letters in the Appendix were written by me to Tom, the first when he was barely one year old, the second as he started in secondary school. Were I to write another now, it would be to congratulate him, not only on all he has achieved, but on his skills as a parent. In his own words, he never takes his survival from meningitis at 5 months for granted but, delighting in his new status, said in an anniversary email in August 2013 “bless you for remembering me on this special day that I fought for life. How lucky am I to be here and be a new dad and living my dream!” He had already described, a month earlier, how newborn Daisy “is still bringing joy in our household” and reminded us we didn’t need to be invited to visit. “Time is precious and I want you to enjoy seeing Daisy grow before she gets big”. Later, when his “golden boy” Oliver arrived, he wrote “I love his reactions when he sees me smile back to him. Melts my heart”. Such descriptions must surely be a testimony to his early communication via signing and I shall forever be indebted to the peripatetic teacher who suggested it.

Just as most parents hang on to every one of their infant’s utterances, so I hung on to Tom’s early signs and now I have the joy of watching his hearing children develop their signed and spoken language. The years disappeared as I watched first his daughter (now 4) and then his son (21 months) sign “bird” with baby hands, just as he had done over 30 years ago!

5 month old Daisy still fascinated by her hands late on Christmas night 2013

As a lovingly observant father, it was Tom himself who first noticed that 5-month old Daisy was “getting more fascinated with her hands”. She spent her first Christmas studying them intently at frequent intervals, obviously already aware of what a large part hands played in family life! Poignantly that very day she was exactly the same age as her father had been when near-fatal meningitis struck and robbed him of his hearing.

Oliver, a carbon copy of his dad at the same age, minus the cumbersome bodyworn hearing aid of the early 80s, already has a repertoire of signs and phrases, and babbles beautifully, just as his sister did. I smile as I think back to all those concerned people who asked me “how will they ever learn to speak?”! This sociable little family is surrounded by hearing people of all ages and both love, and are loved by, their part-time nursery school. There have been times, though, when despite both parents’ brilliant lip-reading, an amusing throwaway remark from a toddler has provoked an involuntary laugh from me, and I have looked up to see a quizzical expression on their faces, needing an explanation of my mirth. That can feel painful for both parties…

When Tom was tiny, waiting outside our gate for the school bus, we often met a lady who was fascinated by him because her parents were deaf, which had an enormous influence on her, making her very independent and self-reliant and teaching her tolerance and compassion. She felt she had learnt to understand people, not only through their words but also through interpreting body language, a valuable skill indeed.

I saw this valuable sensitivity manifest in Daisy at 24 months, when she was alerted to the sound of dogs barking. What had been just background noise to me had obviously changed to a frenzied tone which she detected immediately, racing across the garden to fetch her mother, who found a stranger at the door! She also taps her parents to gain attention, lipspeaks with a whisper when occasion calls for it, and signs when making a request or relaying something of interest.

Thanks to their very grounded parents, both youngsters are calm and contented. Oliver’s very infrequent protests seem to be silent ones! After delighting in his first Easter egg hunt his little face said it all as it came to an end. Sorrow and fury combined – but no sound. No howls of rage, just a facial expression to convey his feelings, and all over in a second! How does he know that screams are lost on deaf ears?

Thirty odd years ago I was astounded when a Social Worker with Deaf people was relieved and delighted to find a couple’s newborn baby was deaf. She saw my shock and explained that, had she been hearing, that baby would be destined to grow up having to take responsibility for interpreting for her deaf parents, even in inappropriate circumstances. I cannot imagine our grandchildren ever being burdened with such responsibility but it is interesting to see how, just as their parents are so sensitively attuned to their needs, they seem to adjust to life with the mother and father they obviously adore! It leads to fascinating family dynamics.

In an age now which is more Deaf Aware, people rightly expect access to a fully qualified professional interpreter, especially in legal, medical and educational settings. MP Dawn Butler has made the case for BSL to have legal status as in other countries and, since 2003, it has been recognised here as a language in its own right. And it is reported that University College London will recognise sign language as a foreign language for the first time from September 2017.

Making Sense in Sign has been reviewed by professionals, parents and deaf organisations. A fellow author described its strength as “making the subject accessible to a much wider field than a specialised audience”, a Teacher of the Deaf referred to it as an “inspiration”, seeing language development outside the “narrow confines of the classroom” and concluded “professionals should read this book and refer back to it often”. It has also been seen as a “valuable contribution, long needed in a world that so often presents a negative view of deafness”. Another journalist described it as “moving, instructive, uplifting, funny, thought-provoking and very well written” and a consultant trainer in childcare as “essential reading for care and education professionals, social workers, health visitors and and speech therapists … a moving story which brings the concept of partnership with parents to the fore”. And, yet another, as a “sound and sensitive appreciation of the D/deaf issues: sign, implants”. A mother of a deaf daughter wrote “a book full of hope and exuberant delight in a beloved child”.

I look back down the years with huge gratitude to Series Editor Colin Baker’s insight and apparent appreciation of the personal aspects of my book which were left in and without which I would have felt Tom’s story was compromised. I am gratified that it is read by professionals and students of sign language, and delighted that, as a human story, it is recommended and reaches parents with a deaf child.

Completed, as it was, by Tom’s 21st birthday, my book covered various issues. There are different ones today but parents are still likely to be shell-shocked at an infant’s initial diagnosis at such a vulnerable time. When Tom was deafened as a baby there were 3 specialist social workers in our borough; today there are none. This lack puts added pressure on Teachers of the Deaf who are responsible for ages 0 to 19 years, overseeing audiology and speech and language therapy provision and now social care. Deaf teenagers whose families have never learned to sign are likely to feel isolated at home and those in mainstream can struggle with identity problems. Mental health issues mean that specialist counselling is sorely needed. Good CHSWGS (Children’s Hearing Services Working Groups) bring together all the disciplines which cover hearing loss and can be a forum that benefits all parties, empowering and informing parents.

A poignant “listen” from a deaf man to his hearing son

Via his emails, which have been one of my rewards for all we did to chase language together, Tom has painted a picture of his life today and proved to me that the signs we used have stood him in good stead and given him the power to express his personality. A while ago I had the privilege of signing Bob Chilcott’s beautiful “Can You Hear Me?” in a concert by a local community choir. “My world’s a silent one but it’s enough for me. I hear you through your hands, the movement sets me free. But it would be a special thing to hear your voice, to hear you sing” and it ends with a poignant “can you hear me….?”

My voice is my book. I can hear him through his emails. Both of these are special things.

Jenny Froude

For more information about this book please see our website

2 Responses to Making Sense in Sign: A Lifeline for a Deaf Child

  1. Wendy Atkinson says:

    ‘Making sense in sign’ is a book of hope, which has now become an affirmation of the overwhelming value of communication whether it be signing gestures or speech.
    Tom is fully rounded and a loving husband and father. He is able to express himself with subtlety and clarity. I think this is due to the dedication of the author who believed that Tom should be introduced to all forms of communication as early as possible.

  2. Making Sense in Sign: A Lifeline for a Deaf Child, is a wonderful demonstration of how to turn a negative, life changing tragedy that could have caused bitterness and despair into a positive, life enhancing journey that is a hymn to the future, bringing only hope and love.
    Everyone, hearing or not, can learn important lessons from this book that has surely also helped change society’s attitudes towards BSL — an achievement that deserves recognition.

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