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.
– 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, firstname.lastname@example.org, subject: Holiday.