5 Powerful Lessons from “The Silent Child” About Deaf Communication in a Hearing World

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Did you watch the Academy Awards last weekend? One of the most striking moments was when Rachel Shenton came to accept an Oscar for her short film “The Silent Child,” which won Best Live Action Short Film. “The Silent Child” is about a deaf girl who struggles to get by without sign language. In keeping with the subject matter, Shenton gave her acceptance speech both verbally and in BSL.

In her speech, Shenton highlighted the difficulties that deaf and hard of hearing people often face, saying “This is happening. Millions of children all over the world live in silence and face communication barriers, and particularly access to education.” The film was created to raise awareness of these challenges.

With that in mind, here are five compelling lessons from The Silent Child about deaf communication in a hearing world.

Sign Language is language.

Sign languages like BSL are languages.  They aren’t merely gestures, nor like playing charades. They are complete, complex languages in their own right. For people who can’t hear, they are lifelines.  In the movie, Libby goes from sullen and silent to animated and lively once sign language gives her the ability to express herself.

Throughout history, groups of deaf people have used sign languages to communicate, both with each other and with people who can hear. In fact,  experts believe that whenever you have a large enough group of deaf people together for a long enough period of time, a full-fledged sign language will eventually emerge.  These languages develop their own vocabulary, syntax, and grammar.

But educators and scientists have been debating about whether or not that’s a good thing for over a century.  Should deaf children be taught exclusively in their local language so that they better fit into the hearing world, or should they learn sign language first and then focus on learning the local language so that they can speak and write?

Hearing families sometimes have a hard time adapting to a deaf child.

1 in every 1000 children is born deaf or hard of hearing.  Meanwhile, 90% of these children are born to hearing parents. The idea that deaf children are better off without sign language is naturally attractive to hearing parents, who want their children to speak the same language they do. Sometimes, as in “The Silent Child,” the parents don’t understand the importance of sign language, or they believe it will hold their child back.

It is true that most hearing people don’t understand the local sign language where they live- according to the British Deaf Association, there are only around 65,000 hearing speakers of BSL, including BSL translators and interpreters. Families are busy, and learning sign language takes time.

But not allowing deaf children access to sign in hopes that they’ll fit in can have crippling consequences.

In the film, Libby, played by Maisie Sly,  is a deaf child in a hearing family. Her parents are too busy to learn sign language and seem to think that she’ll “pick up” lip reading the way hearing babies pick up speech. What’s actually happening,  of course, is that she has no way to effectively communicate with anybody else. She’s not learning any language at all.

That’s incredibly damaging since children are meant to pick up language, whether signed or spoken, in their early years. Not doing so leaves them at a permanent disadvantage. You can see it when she starts school, sitting silently with her pencil still through a spelling test she can’t hear well enough to take.

People who are deaf are still capable of language and learning.

They simply communicate differently.  As Rachel Shenton’s character, Joanne, tells Libby’s mom, “She is normal, she’s just deaf.”

But hearing people, even family members, often have devastatingly low expectations. Consider, for example, when Joanne first meets Libby’s father, who says “We have low expectations.” Or when she meets his horrible mother: “Libby? Bright? Really?”

And professionals are often less than helpful, as this post from a mother of a deaf daughter illustrates. 

Cochlear implants aren’t a cure-all.

Of course, cochlear implants have changed the debate around deaf communication and sign language tremendously. As miraculous as they can be, it’s important to realize that they don’t work perfectly for everyone all the time. In the film, for example, Libby wasn’t able to get one. But even if she had, she might well have required extra support in the classroom.

Communication support can be hard to come by.

Deaf people flourish with the appropriate language services in place. However, that help can be hard to come by. For example, the family of the actress that played Libby had to move 160 miles from Plymouth to Swindon so that Maisie could attend a school with the right support.

In other countries, barriers to access can be even higher.  For example, in  India, there are only 250 certified Indian Sign Language interpreters in the entire country.

Approximately 1 person out of every 7 in the UK has some form of hearing loss.  However, most of these people have become deaf or hard of hearing as older children or adults, after learning how to speak.  People with acquired hearing loss often require different accommodations when compared to people who were born deaf or who lost their hearing as infants. For example, they are much less likely to learn sign language.

That said, approximately 70,000 deaf people in the UK are most comfortable communicating in BSL. Access to interpreters is vital for early education, but the need for language services extends throughout adulthood, especially in legal and medical settings but also at business functions and online.

Making content accessible to people with hearing loss can be as simple as adding subtitles. However, some deaf people comprehend sign language much better than they do written English. So, in some cases, digital “signing avatars” may be added to websites to convey information in sign, or instructional videos may be filmed in sign language to provide people with hearing loss access to content in their native language.

We can help! We can provide registered BSL interpreters, captioning services, and recorded sign language videos to make your events and videos accessible to everyone, whether they can hear or not.

Did you watch “The Silent Child?” What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments!