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My best present ever

Photo: Siblings Isla and Anya, and their parents.

When a child is diagnosed as deaf, parents find different ways to help siblings understand. Gurpreet and Delleep share their story of how they’ve helped their daughter Isla (6) to understand what it means for her little sister to be deaf…

Gurpreet and Delleep found out their younger daughter Anya (3) had a hearing loss when she was two months old. She was diagnosed as mildly to moderately deaf. Isla, Anya’s sister, was only three when Anya was born. Life changed for the family, not only having a newborn in addition to a toddler, but the steep learning curve of having a child with a hearing impairment, and the emotional rollercoaster too. Even a simple thing like ensuring Anya kept her hearing aids in was a feat in itself, as she kept pulling them out.

There was lots to learn to make sure they got good support for themselves and for Anya. The family moved to an area with good provision for speech therapy. Their Teacher of the Deaf (ToD) gave them the National Deaf Children’s Society’s details and they attended an event for those who have just found out their child is deaf, where they met other parents and picked up information on deafness.

The couple also wanted to make sure Isla was nurtured and understood what hearing aids were and why her sister was wearing them. “We explained Anya’s deafness simply to Isla,” says Gurpreet. “When she asked what was on her ears, we just said the hearing aids help her hear.”

Rather than giving her specific tips to try and change the way she interacted with her sister, the couple wanted Isl to adapt to Anya’s deafness in her own way, which she quickly did.

“Sometimes Isla would complain, ‘She’s not listening to me!’ and I’d remind her to make sure Anya can see her,” says Gurpreet. “She knows to pause the TV if they’re watching something and she wants to speak to Anya, and to face her.”

"Isla’s teacher has been brilliant too. I asked if she could raise deaf awareness in Year 1."

Last year, when Isla needed glasses, they told her Anya’s hearing aids help her hear like the glasses help Isla to see. Delleep bought Isla an encyclopaedia and they looked at how the ear works.

“A few days later, Isla asked me if Anya would have to wear her hearing aids to school,” says Gurpreet. “She’d thought they were temporary like her glasses were, that wearing them would improve Anya’s hearing like the glasses would help Isla’s eyesight.”

Anya’s many appointments and sessions have added a new dimension to life and Gurpreet and Delleep also wanted to make sure Isla didn’t feel left out or resentful about this. “Sometimes we have taken Isla to my mum’s, she loves being with her Nani,” says Gurpreet. “Other times we’d call it a dad and daughter day for Isla, while I took Anya for an appointment, so Isla felt
special too.”

Last July, Anya’s hearing dropped to severe to profound deafness and she was given more powerful hearing aids. Delleep started teaching the girls Makaton and the whole family is now learning British Sign Language (BSL) through an app and has signed up for a Family Sign Language course with the National Deaf Children’s Society.

“Both girls have taken to it like a duck to water,” says Gurpreet. “We want Anya to speak and sign. She’ll go to mainstream nursery and school. We don’t want her too reliant on sign language in case no one else signs, she’ll get confused and feel left out. Her ToD and speech therapist say she’s doing so well with her speech. We speak English and Punjabi at home, so BSL will be a third language, which, I tell the girls, is an advantage.”

Gurpreet and Delleep are keen to make sure people understand about deafness and deaf awareness. “Isla’s close friends have known her since Anya was born and their parents have explained her deafness,” says Gurpreet. “When Anya got her pink glittery hearing aids, which are so cool, they made a nice fuss.

“Other friends have asked, ‘What has your sister got in her ears?’ Isla happily explains it’s her hearing aids, which help her to hear.

“Isla’s teacher has been brilliant too. I asked if she could raise deaf awareness in Year 1 because Isla’s friends were asking about her sister and she did.

“It was World Book Day and World Hearing Day and we asked her teacher if she could read a book with a deaf character in it. She read them Elephant and the Lost Blanket and arranged for someone to sign it in Makaton too. She’s brilliant – Anya is not her pupil but she appreciates that it’s helpful for Isla and her friends to have more understanding and awareness. It was fantastic for Isla to see.”

“Isla and Anya have a lovely bond,” Gurpreet adds. “When Isla was excited, she’d speak very fast. But she adapted herself quickly. She’d speak slower and say, ‘Anya can you get the Lego for me,’ then repeat it again, like we do.

“Isla helps look after Anya’s hearing aids. When Anya removes them at night, Isla puts them in their box and kisses them! She said to me just before her birthday, ‘I don’t want any presents, these little things are the best present because they help my sister hear.’

“They’re like magnets, Anya wants to copy everything Isla is doing. Anya responds to her sister very well and her communication has come on brilliantly because they talk all the time. As siblings, they also share stories and build tents and have the odd spat too! But they play and sign together beautifully. Delleep and I are so thankful for our girls.”