Special needs community embracing sign language

By Daniel Smrokowski

Bugle Columnist | Column: Special Voices

American Sign Language (ASL) has become mainstream in the community at large. Twenty-five years ago, families used American Sign Language to communicate with a deaf child. ASL is now embraced by the broader special needs community, by those who have communication disorders when communication is difficult. Today, a quarter century later, when children of all ages and abilities learn to move their hands to make ASL signs, their minds are learning as well. A child who is signing acquires a better vocabulary than children who do not sign. An innovation that encourages children and their families to use ASL is Signing Time. Signing Time is a video series and television program that seeks to eliminate communication barriers for children with disabilities.

“It’s become very mainstream to use sign language with children in your family,” said Rachel Coleman, the creator and Emmy-nominated host of Signing Time.

On November 12 at 5:30 p.m., over 300 people from across the U.S. traveled from Florida, Alabama, Utah, and everywhere in between to Columbia, Tennessee. Folks came for the Indy+Friends Signing Time Live Concert. The concert took place at the concert hall barn of American Country Music singer and songwriter, Rory Feek. Feek’s two-year-old daughter, Indiana, or Indy as she is known by friends, was born with Down syndrome. About a month before the concert, Feek surprised his daughter, Indy, by inviting Rachel Coleman and Signing Time to their barn-turned-concert hall for a one-night-only surprise concert. For over 300 individuals who were in attendance, tickets were free to the public. The concert was also streamed live online and the $10 virtual ticket fee was made possible by the Loeys-Dietz Syndrome Foundation in honor of Indy’s friend Scout who introduced Indy to Signing Time.

Rachel Coleman created Signing Time in her home of Midvale, Utah when her oldest daughter, Leah, who is profoundly deaf, was four years old. Rachel’s youngest daughter Lucy was born with spina bifida and cerebral palsy.

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Rachel Coleman and her daughter Leah backstage 15-minutes before they went on stage. This opportunity came about because of a last minute trip with my friend Diane Compton and her daughter Erin. The day before the concert, we decided to make the over 500 mile drive from the Chicago western suburbs to Columbia, Tennessee. We arrived at the farm of Rory Feek about four hours before the concert. It wasn’t until a half hour before the Signing Time concert began that I was met in front of the concert hall barn by Aaron Coleman, the husband of Rachel and father to Leah and Lucy. As I hopped over a fence, I made my way backstage of the Signing Time concert to sit down with Rachel Coleman and her daughter Leah.

Similar to Leah, when I was born I began to learn American Sign Language to help me with the severe language disorder that I was diagnosed with. Leah and myself both use the Accessible Touch accessibility feature on the iPhone to help us with communication.

As I witnessed on November 12, Signing Time has created a community where sign language has become mainstream for the deaf and hearing communities.

“It [Signing Time] really helped because it helped build a community that wasn’t there previously,” said Leah Coleman. “Because a lot of hearing parents with deaf children didn’t know what to do and my mom allowed to pave that path for them.”

Leah told me about a time when she was younger and on a soccer team. “I don’t want to play with her because she is deaf,” said one of Leah’s soccer teammates.   At the time, Leah’s mom did not interpret the exact words to her daughter. She did not want to subject Leah to the ignorance at an early age. At this moment of Leah’s youth, the use of signing among her peers who were not deaf was not yet mainstream. Ignorance was the catalyst for Rachel to create Signing Time and be able to share sign language with other children and families.

Fast forward to November 2016 when over 300 people from across our nation came together to Tennessee for the Signing Time concert. One local family from Tennessee, Jeremy and Elayna Cook and their son Chance, is the perfect example of how Signing Time has made American Sign Language mainstream for people who are hearing as well as hearing impaired. Even though Chance does not have any special needs, the Cooks taught their baby boy sign language for the reason most families today use Signing Time with their children: baby sign language lets babies communicate their needs rather than crying. As a child’s hands are moving, the child’s emotions are being expressed. As a by-product, their mind is learning.

Special needs families of all different diagnoses know the joys and challenges that each other face. Many try to jump at any chance they get to support other families. Take the Feek and Coleman families for a perfect example of two special needs families coming together to support each other and uniting the community.

“What I love about our Signing Time events, they’re unlike anything anywhere else,” said Rachel Coleman. “Because even as families who have children with special needs, we divide ourselves up like ‘oh I’m going to go to the deaf stuff or we’re going to the Down syndrome Buddy Walk’ but we still divide ourselves up and at a Signing Time event you see every kind of parent, typical kids, kids with autism, Down syndrome, and I can pull anybody from the audience, any child and have them on stage and have them participate in a meaningful, real way and we can all communicate.”

The Coleman and Feek families made a big difference in many lives when they came together for this unique Signing Time concert at Rory Feek’s barn-turned-concert hall.

“It’s just a coming together of families and communities and reaching out and acknowledging that we’ve been there for each other,” said Rachel. “We’ve made a difference in each other’s lives.”

Instead of having a divided nation, we should ideally all come and sign together. Instead of having division even within the special needs community, friends can find that in the end they are not so different.

“In the theme song for Signing Time, I say where friends can meet and find we’re not so different after all,” said Rachel. “And that’s been at the heart of everything that we’ve been doing for the past 15 years. When you meet you find you’re not so different after all.”

Readers who are interested in viewing the Signing Time video series either as DVDs or digitally on the Signing Time TV app, can visit www.signingtime.com. For folks who are interested in the newly launched American Sign Language online class, visit www.SignItASL.com.

Join me and let’s change the game and learn American Sign Language. Now is the time for signing to become mainstream in our community. Together, we can unite our community.

Daniel Smrokowski was born three-and-a-third months premature and was diagnosed with learning disabilities and a severe language disorder. He is an Athlete and Global Messenger with Special Olympics Illinois on the Southeast Association for Special Parks and Recreation team. Daniel is an award-winning columnist who writes a featured monthly column on special needs issues. He is the founder of Special Chronicles, a pioneering nonprofit new media network that gives respect and voice to people with special needs. Come join us at www.SpecialChronicles.com.


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