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Primrose's communication choices

Photo: Primrose made her first sign at around five months old.

When their newborn baby was diagnosed as deaf, Nadine and Joseph decided to teach her sign language, even though they had every hope cochlear implants would enable her to hear and learn to speak.

As her friend’s baby lay on the play mat babbling away, Nadine smiled. Her seven-month-old daughter Primrose was lying there beside her waving her hands around – she was doing exactly the same ‘baby babbling’ but in sign language.

It was a big shock to Nadine and partner Joseph when, after failing her newborn hearing screening, Primrose was diagnosed as profoundly deaf. She had a tiny amount of hearing in her right ear and none in her left. “We were very shocked and upset,” says Nadine. “But we focused straightaway on coming to terms with it. We accepted that our daughter was deaf and knew we’d do everything we could to support her.”

At six weeks old Primrose had hearing aids, but they didn’t seem to make any difference. Nadine and Joseph tried to find out all they could about deafness, including different ways of communicating. The doctors were already talking about cochlear implants as an option.

Primrose was assigned a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD) who discussed communication options, including signing. They were advised to be aware that over reliance on one of the communication methods wouldn’t be as effective. Signing but no implants would mean speech was adversely affected and vice versa would mean when the implants weren’t in or were broken, there’d be no other method of communicating.

She’ll meet deaf children who’ll use hearing aids and speak, others who’ll sign. It’s important she has all options.

“We decided we wanted Primrose to learn to sign,” says Nadine. “Even if her hearing aids were helping, what if she was poorly and couldn’t wear them, or if they broke? Or if she’s in the bath? If it turned out she could have cochlear implants, we’d go for it – we wanted her to be able to hear, to learn speech. But we felt it was still really important she learn to sign because, then when she was older, it would give her the choice of which communication method she wanted to use. She’ll meet other deaf children, some who’ll use hearing aids and speak and others who’ll sign. It’s important she has all options.”

Their ToD put them in touch with a sign language teacher called Tracey. She came to the house once a week for a month and taught Nadine basic signs, such as ‘milk’ and ‘hungry’. By five months old Primrose was making signs for ‘milk’ and waving hello and goodbye, and at seven months signed ‘thank you’ when she was given a baby biscuit.

As Tracey’s home visits ended, Nadine found out about free British Sign Language (BSL) classes from her local council and she and Joseph’s mother Monique signed up to learn Level 1. “We were lucky, we asked our local authority about doing a BSL course and they provided it free, no problems. I know it’s different in some regions,” says Nadine. “We talk to Primrose as well as signing. When I speak, I put her hand on my chest so she can feel the vibration and vice versa when she makes sounds. I sing and shush her when she’s going to sleep, hold her against my chest so she can feel the vibrations.

"We sign – and talk – to Primrose all the time, just like you’d chat to a hearing baby and talk about what you’re doing and seeing."

“Daddy is learning some signs from Monique and me, and so is my mum. Some friends have learnt basic signs, like ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ and one’s doing a short BSL course,”says Nadine. “We sign – and talk – to Primrose all the time, just like you’d chat to a hearing baby and talk about what you’re doing and seeing. If people stare and look interested I explain that we’re signing because she’s deaf. I don’t mind if they ask questions; I want people to be aware of deafness and understand that she’s completely normal, just deaf.

“If we go into the garden, I show her signs for flowers and trees. We have three cats and two dogs, so I sign the words for them. Whatever’s going on, I’ll sign about it. I also sign when I’m reading books with her – we have books on getting ready and playing and I sign the key words to her. She watches your mouth so intently – she has done ever since she was born, gazes really wide-eyed at your mouth. I think she’ll learn to lip-read.”

"We hope that she’ll be bilingual: speaking and signing.”

Nadine takes Primrose to a fortnightly Sight and Sound baby group, for babies who are deaf and/or blind. She also takes her to a National Deaf Children’s Society group that meets once a month. “There are deaf children from babies to teenagers,” says Nadine. “It’s lovely to see them grown-up and doing all the things other children do; it’s inspiring. I sit with the adults and practise signing.”

Primrose has just been accepted for cochlear implants and doctors hope to implant her this spring. She’s recently been diagnosed with a heart defect – one which is linked to cot death and sudden adult death syndrome – which is the cause of her deafness. Doctors have put her on beta blockers and a specialist anaesthetist will assist at the implant surgery.

Now Nadine and Joseph are looking forward to Primrose getting her implants and hoping she’ll be able to hear and learn speech. But they’ll continue with sign language; Nadine will go on to Level 2. “It’s fascinating that there are differences in signing for regional accents,” says Nadine. “I have a strong Yorkshire accent which will affect the signs I use for some words but I want it to be as straightforward for Primrose as possible. We hope that she’ll be bilingual: speaking and signing.”