A Bright Future for Deaf Families
When Dylan’s first son Tobi was born last year, he faced many of the same challenges as any other parent: sleepless nights, lifestyle changes, and new responsibilities. But Dylan and his partner Polly are also Deaf, meaning that there were differences as well. For instance, they needed a way to know when their baby was crying in the middle of the night. Deaf Aotearoa, New Zealand’s national service provider for Deaf people, was able to supply them with a special baby monitor that shakes the bed when the baby cries.
“I’ve learnt a lot, being a Deaf parent,” says Dylan. “I know that some people were nervous about how we would look after a baby. But there are no issues. We have all the equipment we need.”
Equipment such as baby monitors and smoke alarms are funded through the Ministry of Health, which also offers financial support for interpreters at medical appointments. In areas where it is difficult to find a face-to-face interpreter, other services such as Video Remote Interpreting can be offered, at no cost to the family.
Sarah Mason, who immigrated to New Zealand from South Africa seven years ago, says that these services have allowed her to be much more independent. “In South Africa, Deaf people are reliant on hearing people,” she says. “There are a lot more barriers. Here we have a lot more access. There are more interpreters, more equipment, and even captions on the TV.”
Sarah has a 16-month-old son, Logan, who is hearing but started signing before he could speak. “He signed his first word, ‘light’, when he was about 11 months old, but he signed it upside-down,” she says. Sarah’s partner is also Deaf and communicates with Logan entirely in New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), but Sarah uses both sign language and spoken English. “When he needs to be told off I use my voice,” she remarks, “so that he can hear the tone and understand that he has done something wrong.”
Next year, Logan will attend the preschool run by Kelston Deaf Education Centre (KDEC) in West Auckland. The preschool caters to Deaf and hard-of-hearing children, but also accepts hearing children, especially those with a connection to the Deaf community. “I’ll send Logan there so that he sees a mix of Deaf and hearing people,” says Sarah.
Within the Deaf community, hearing children with Deaf parents are known as CODAs, Children of Deaf Adults. CODAs easily learn to code-switch, meaning that they switch between two languages, in their case English and NZSL, depending on the situation. Phillip King is Deaf and the father of two hearing sons, aged 9 and 7. Their mother is also hearing, so they have always communicated in both NZSL and English. When the boys were very young, the family lived on the campus of Van Asch Deaf Education Centre, in Christchurch, “so they were surrounded by Deaf people all the time,” says Phillip. “They would naturally sign to Deaf people and speak to hearing people,” he adds.
Phillip says that CODAs have a special connection with Deaf culture. “The language is different. The culture is different. Hearing parents might meet other parents and their kids might get along, or might not. CODAs have that instant connection with other CODAs, a strong bond.”
While Deaf parents have a different language and culture from hearing parents, their outlook on parenting is no different from anyone else’s. “I’m a big family man and I love my family,” says Dylan. “When Tobi was born, I had a lot of support. He’s given me a lot more encouragement and power in myself. I watch him, and I know that I can do it. I’m a very proactive parent; I like to get out and do things with him. I’m always thinking about him. He’s my top priority.”
“Being a parent has definitely changed my life,” says Sarah. “I don’t have any time for myself now. Before I was very independent, and now I’m a mum first.”
Phillip adds that for any parent, Deaf or hearing, “it’s important to remember that being a parent is not about trying to make our children part of our world, but supporting them and being part of theirs.”