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Many of us look forward to the holiday season and all the memory-making activities that go along with family gatherings. Whether your tradition is to gather as a big group with extended family and friends combined, or a smaller intimate group; there are ways to create an inclusive and accessible environment for children and guests who are deaf or hard of hearing (dhh).

Many parents who have a child who is dhh have watched them struggle to track the conversations at family gatherings. We trust relationships will develop naturally over time, but in that moment it can be heart breaking. Communication modalities such as: listening and spoken language, manual communication (cued speech or sign language), bi-lingual approach using American Sign Language (ASL), or a mix of all of the above, does not lessen the impact of these experiences. Holiday gatherings are a call to action for parents to help bridge the communication gap between our child who is growing up with the unique experience of being dhh and other individuals who are part of our traditional group.

There are many creative ways to make holiday gatherings feel more inclusive and accessible to people who are dhh. Listed here are just a few ideas you can try or adapt for your own family’s needs.

Before the Gathering

– Ask your child or guest who is dhh for ideas on how to make the holiday gathering more accessible. Many accommodations can be arranged before the event.

– Share the guest list with your child or guest who is dhh. For young children draw a simple family tree to show which guests are related and which are friends. If possible label photos of the guests with their names and relation.

– If your child uses hearing gear make sure to have back-up batteries with you ready to use for longer holiday gatherings. Even if their gear has a long battery life it is always good to have back-up batteries.

– Electronic devices such as mobile phones, tablets, and laptops can facilitate communication between guests who are dhh and hearing guests. Set up a charging station in a convenient area or remember to bring your device chargers to the gathering.

Parents: BEFORE the event discuss with your child who is dhh your rules of etiquette about using devices at events.

– Captioning please! If a TV is on during a gathering make sure the captioning is on, too. Whether your guest who is dhh is watching or not they will appreciate having access without needing to ask.

Set the Stage

– Nametags and place cards at the table are a great way to make the connection between a person’s face and their name.

– Turn down the noise! Background music, televisions, appliances, pets, plus multiple conversations at once, all make it difficult to pick up the sounds of speech even with the latest hearing technology. Minimize as much of the “extra” sounds as possible.

– Keep plenty of note pads and pens handy for anyone who wants to communicate through writing or drawing. Save on paper and make it fun by keeping Magna-Doodles near by!

– Natural light can shadow a speaker’s face if their back is facing the window. Position guests, furniture and window treatments to optimize lighting on individual’s faces as well as avoid seating guests who are dhh where they would be facing bright windows.

– Turn up the lights! Dim lighting can make it difficult for individuals who are dhh to communicate. Good lighting is essential to read lips, see body language, facial expressions, signs, cues, interpreters, or transliterors. Try to illuminate areas of your home that are too dark to communicate.

Set the Stage for Listening

– For children who are dhh and use an FM system, strategically place the microphone on the table as close to the center as possible. Then at mealtime it will be easy to position the microphone in an optimal spot to pick up speech.

– Have a set of “conversation starters” cards at the table for your guests and your child who is dhh to chat about a topic your child is more familiar with.

– Many children who are dhh can be responsible to ask speakers to wear the FM system for better access. Before the gathering role-play how to make a request to wear the FM system and ways to advocate for themselves.

Set the Stage for ASL

– For children who are dhh and use ASL place a few American Sign Language books out on the coffee table and around the house. Make it easy for your guests who are intrigued and want to learn more about the language.

Set the Stage for Cued English

– For children who are dhh and use Cued English leave a handful of Cued English charts set out around the house for any guests interested in trying the visual system of English phonemes.

During the Gathering

– People who are dhh understand the need to get their attention to communicate. Polite ways to do this is to tap their shoulder or give a quick hand wave to catch their eye. To make an announcement from across the room quickly flick the light switch.

– When someone who is dhh asks, “What?” DO NOT dismiss their question with, “Never mind,” “Oh, nothing,” or “It’s not important.” Even if you think it is extraneous, let them be the judge. Out of respect always take the time to repeat what was missed.

– If there is some doubt in your mind whether your guest who is dhh understood you, rephrase your comment, rather than repeat. Vice versa, if you do not understand ask for clarification until you do. Communication only happens when both parties understand each other.

During the Gathering for Listening

– Make sure guests understand the importance of using the FM system to access conversations for your child who is dhh. If need be give a quick demonstration on how to properly wear or place the FM microphone.

– You and your family might feel selfconscious being the only people passing around the FM system or wearing it. Focus on optimal access to the sounds of speech and the long-term benefits for your child and it will get easier to do.

During the Gathering for Cued English

– Assign family members to take turns transliterating for your child who is dhh so they are included in the conversation. Cueing for your child who is dhh will not only provide access, but also act as a great language model. If your transliterating skills are not proficient what better way to practice!

– You and your family might feel selfconscious cueing in a room full of people who do not use the system. It is important to work through your feelings for the greater good of providing access.

– Consider hiring a transliteror for your holiday gatherings. They could provide continuous access for your child.

During the Gathering for ASL

– Assign family members to take turns interpreting for your child who is dhh so they can be included in conversations. Even if you are not an ASL interpreter do your best.. Eventually your child may be able to take the topic and join in conversations.

– You and your family might feel self conscious if you are the only family using ASL in a room full of hearing people. It’s important to get passed how you feel for the greater good of providing language access to your child.

– Consider hiring an ASL interpreter for your holiday gatherings. As your child who is dhh becomes older, there is a need for a higher level of language. An ASL interpreter can facilitate in-depth conversations between your child and guests who do not know ASL.

– If you are just learning ASL and you are addressing a person who is fluent in ASL remember to RELAX. Be courteous, but not overly anxious about making mistakes. Allow yourself to be corrected so the individual understands the full meaning of your comments. Do not debate sign vocabulary with a person who is dhh, just except the beauty and diversity of ASL and move on.

Inclusive Activities

– Play games that encourage turn taking, which are fun for everyone! In contrast games where you need to shout out the answer first for points puts guests who are dhh at a disadvantage.

– Children of all ages and abilities can appreciate each other by doing activities with little conversation needed. Building toys, marble run, puzzles, logic games, coloring books, craft projects, and many more activities are enjoyable to work on as a group or side-by-side.

Good to Know for Hearing Folks

– No need to shout! Hearing gear is calibrated to normal voice levels; shouting will just distort the words.

– Persons who communicate well oneon- one may have a hard time with two or more speakers, especially if there are many interruptions and interjections.

– Gatherings where everyone else is hearing can be very exhausting, and especially unbearable for teens that are dhh. Discuss an appropriate backup plan when they need a break, such as reading a book, watching a movie, or playing games on a mobile phone.

– Speak in a normal manner. In general people, who are dhh or hearing, watch other’s lips for clues as they speak to help them understand. Chewing food, gum, smoking, long facial hair, or obscuring your mouth with your hands makes it difficult to understand speech.

– Not all people who are dhh read-lips. Lip-reading to the level of a reliable communication mode takes years to develop and mastery of English. Children should not be expected to lip-read before they have language. An estimated 30% of speech sounds are not distinguishable by sight.

– Not all people who are dhh use ASL. American Sign language is NOT another form of English; it is an official language and the foundation of Deaf culture with its own grammar, contexts and rules.

– Not all people who are dhh are familiar with Cued English, also known as Cued Speech. Cued English is a visual representation of all the phonemes or sounds of the English language using 7 hand shapes and 4 vowel positions.

All of MNH&V wishes you and your family a fun-filled holiday season! Please email your ideas to add to this list for next year,, subject: Holiday.

Congratulations to this year’s Minnesota Hands & Voices (MNH&V) High Five Award recipients, from the metro area; Diana Chabot and Kitri Larson Kyllo, and from greater Minnesota, Pete Billodeau. The MNH&V High Five Award recipients were nominated by families or care providers of children who are deaf or hard of hearing (dhh).

The MNH&V community would like to thank all of the award nominees and winners for their dedicated service. The MNH&V High Five Award was created as a way for parents to publicly recognize individuals who have gone above and beyond on behalf of children who are dhh. Past recipients represent a diverse group of parents, teachers, students, interpreters, providers, advocates, volunteers, and role models.

Nominations for next year’s 2019 MNH&V High Five Award will be accepted from May 1st to July 1st, 2019. To nominate someone simply write a 200 word or less explanation of 1) what the nominee has done above and beyond what is typical for their role and 2) how this individual has made an impact on a child and/or the community. At least one specific example is very helpful. Email your nomination to and include in the subject line “High Five Award”. Please submit only one nomination per family per year. MNH&V High Five Award submissions information can be found at


Diana Chabot

Pearl Devenow nominated Diana Chabot for the MNH&V High Five Award in appreciation of Diana’s passion in working with and supporting individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing (dhh). Some years ago Diana participated in an interpreter training program in order to become more involved with individuals who are dhh and the Deaf community.

About six years ago, after noticing Pearl’s son, Gabe, who is profoundly deaf with additional disabilities, Diana introduced herself and over the years has continued to build a relationship with Gabe.

“Since their initial meeting, Diana has been a part of my son’s life. Their acquaintance has led to a deep and abiding friendship that has made a significant difference my son’s life,” said Pearl.

Diana voluntarily interprets at events for Gabe, meets with him weekly for recreational activities, and helps him meet other individuals who are dhh or who know American Sign Language (ASL). Diana is involved and active in Gabe’s life, as well as a number of other individuals who are dhh in the area. Not only is this amazing on its own, but Diana herself is a young woman with a disability that can cause anxiety in new situations. Despite this challenge, Diana puts herself out there time and time again for the sake of others.

“I would award Diana a High Ten Award if one exists, because one hand is not nearly enough credit for all that she does,” added Pearl.


Kitri Larson Kyllo

Stephen Stadelman, father of a teenage son who is deaf, nominated Kitri Larson Kyllo for the MNH&V High Five Award to show his gratitude for all she has meant to his family. Kitri retired a year ago after forty-plus years in education for students who are dhh.

“During her career in education she has had a huge positive impact in our lives,” said Stephen, “As well as the lives of countless other students and families.”

As Assistant Director of ISD 917 Deaf/Hard of Hearing Program, Kitri was the driving force in developing a unique program using both ASL and English through Cued Speech for students who are dhh. Kitri’s leadership was evident in the exceptional way the ISD 917 staff, consisting of over 70 people, carried out and embrace the program’s mission of achieving English literacy and embracing ASL.

Year after year in the program, even if IEP team members changed, the Stadelman family could rely on ISD 917 staff to be exceptional and professional. Kitri’s attention to details and consistent delivery of services provided them with an educational team who were well informed, uniformly trained, and creative in their approach to provide their son with an education that was best for him.

“We credit Kitri’s leadership and her commitment to this program model and to her staff for our son’s ability to succeed academically and for his love of both English and ASL,” added Stephen.

While Kitri had her eye on leading the ISD 917 program, she still made personal connections with families. Kitri actually knows the  families in the program. Within the first week after the family contacted ISD 917,  Kitri had set up in-home services, enrolled the family in Cued Speech classes, and told them about an amazing organization called MNH&V and other networking opportunities. From the beginning she worked closely with the family to meet their son’s communication needs both at school and at home.

“My wife often says the community at ISD 917 has been like a warm blanket of support and we credit Kitri for leading by example,” added Stephen.

Over the years Kitri has tirelessly written articles, presented at conferences, offered workshops, and spent time one-on-one with educators and families to share her knowledge, and experience. She has volunteered her time and served on boards for many organizations that support families and students who are dhh.

“There is a long list of Kitri’s contributions and accomplishments that I am likely forgetting to include,” Stephen said, “But it is Kitri’s individual attention to our son and to every student she has had over the years that is truly exceptional. We will be forever grateful to Kitri for always having our son’s best interest at heart.”


Pete Billodeau

Katie Schur nominated Pete Billodeau from Detroit Lakes for the MNH&V High Five Award for all he does for the community and for individuals who are dhh, even the youngest amongst them, and their families.

“He will probably hate the fact that I’m nominating him,” remarked Katie, “But he deserves some recognition.”

Katie Schur first met Pete a little over two years ago in February of 2017, when her daughter, Jillian, was born and first identified as dhh.

“Pete took to ‘Jilly’ immediately,” said Katie. When the family was unsuccessful in finding ASL classes in their area, Pete, who is a certified ASL Interpreter and co-owns Certified Interpreting and Consulting (CIC) in Fergus Falls, MN, set up a community education class and has continued to give up his time every Monday night to teach ASL to anyone who is interested.

At the church where Katie’s family attends services, Pete will often step in to assist members who are deaf and fluent in ASL communicate with non-ASL members. Pete and his wife Lori also have organized a monthly family friendly Deaf community event at the church. The event is a great opportunity for individuals who are dhh and families with a child who is dhh to get together and interact over a shared meal.

“I have contacted Pete several times over the past two years with questions and concerns about Jillian, and he never hesitates to offer advice and a listening ear,” said Katie. “Pete’s friendship and obvious love for my daughter has been a very important support for me in a time I truly needed it!”