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Isabel's sign language lifeline

Photo: Isabel's story

When Vicky tried to learn sign language to communicate with her deaf daughter, she was frustrated to find she faced a year’s wait. Then Vicky found another way through Family Sign Language.

Through sign language, they’ve established what she wants. As yet, Isabel can’t respond in sign but it’s a big leap from where they were last year.

Isabel, now two, wasn’t born deaf. She lost her hearing when an illness struck when Isabel was 14 months old. It began like an everyday virus – high temperature, off her food, clingy – but a week later Isabel was rushed to hospital.

"I honestly thought we’d lose her.”

“She’d become drowsy and then she started having a fit,” says Vicky. As Vicky and partner Chris waited anxiously, their little girl was rigged up to monitors and drips on the high dependency unit and tested for meningitis.

“It was touch and go,” says Vicky. “Doctors said if we wanted anyone to see her, call them in quick. I honestly thought we’d lose her.”

After two days meningitis was ruled out. But then they learnt Isabel had encephalitis, caused by the cold sore virus herpes simplex, which had gone to her brain. An MRI scan showed brain injury in three places and a stroke had weakened her left side, including her face which drooped.

Day after day they sat by her cot until finally, after ten days, Isabel was taken off the danger list. 

“It was amazing when she sat up and recognised us again,” says Vicky, who could then let her older daughters Paige (9) and Emily (7) visit, to the delight of their little sister. But once back home Vicky and Chris developed other concerns.

“She’d ignore us calling her,” recalls Vicky. “She no longer spoke, not even ‘Mama’ and ‘Dadda’ – she’d had a dozen words before her illness.”

Hearing tests and an MRI scan showed it was her brain injury preventing Isabel hearing.

"How were we going to communicate with her?”

“They diagnosed cortical deafness which is incredibly rare,” says Vicky. “It was devastating. Hearing aids or cochlear implants couldn’t help – Isabel was unable to make sense of sounds. How were we going to communicate with her?”

Vicky was handed one of our leaflets and browsed our website. She located a local deaf children's society where she made a friend Nicky, who was studying British Sign Language (BSL).

“I realised this was what I had to do,” said Vicky. “But the college said I must wait until the following September, nearly a year away! That was out of the question – it’s a big chunk out of a toddler’s life and development. We had weekly visits from a Teacher of the Deaf but she didn’t teach us sign language. There’s no facility for us to learn it, unlike some regions where parents are taught it.

“It made me so angry. If your child couldn’t see they’d give her glasses, if she couldn’t walk they’d give her a wheelchair. Isabel couldn’t communicate but there was nothing to help her.”

Then Vicky discovered Family Sign Language (FSL).

“It’s been our lifeline to communicating with Isabel.” 

“Unlike other sign language, it’s for 0–5 years old – a young child uses language differently from adults," explains Vicky. 

“It was amazing; I sat up all night studying it. Chris came down at 3am and made me a brew and I fell asleep at the computer. And in the morning I could sign!"

Now Vicky signs to Isabel constantly. “She sometimes signs back but then forgets how to,” explains Vicky. “It’s like her memory is on a loop, her hearing too – it varies like an on–off switch in her brain, from moderate to severely deaf. With acquired brain injury it’s hard to tell in a child if things will improve, we’ll have to wait and see.”

In the meantime Vicky and Chris, along with Nicky and her partner Brian, have launched a Local Deaf Children’s Society, the Flint Deaf Children’s Society.

“We want to set up National Deaf Children’s Society FSL course here for parents. It’s given us the opportunity to learn sign language when we’d no other access to it. I don’t know what we’d have done without it – it’s our lifeline to communicating with Isabel.”