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Communicating with strangers

Published Date: 16 Jan 2020

Through the open door of the bakery, I can hear the waitress in her warm, thickly-accented English, asking: “Where are you from?” in response to Ivy’s cheerful “it’s our last day today!” chit-chat.

Silence, and then the little voice again: “Pardon?”

The waitress slows down, separates her words more clearly, being persistent. “Where are you from? What country?” She is a generous communicator, having a deaf child I can recognise the signs a mile away.

Life as Ivy’s parent is full of thousands of moments like this – they fill our days together. Split-second decisions that matter so much to her confidence, her independence, her engagement with the world.

Do I stand up from our table and head inside, interrupt this lovely interaction to ‘save’ the conversation with a quick signed summary so Ivy can keep it going? Or let the two of them, a five-year-old and a kind stranger, work through it? I sip my coffee and keep listening.Dad and daughter

“Where are you from?”


Ivy is profoundly deaf, and makes very good use of her single cochlear implant. Her first language was British Sign Language (BSL) and she is a strong bilingual with a love for and fascination with all languages, but unfamiliar speakers and accents make for tricky lipreading and listening. She isn’t shy, especially if she thinks she might get a free biscuit as a reward for charming the waitress - she knows how these things sometimes work!

Like many deaf children, Ivy is a master at disguising when she hasn’t understood something, the ‘nod-and-smile’, we call it. She’s tricked Teachers of the Deaf, educational psychologists and even family members. A parent’s raised eyebrow usually cuts through, though: “Grandma really cares about you and wants to make sure you understand her – do you need to ask her to repeat that?”

This “yes” in the bakery, out of place in the conversation, is followed by silence again, probably accompanied by a kind smile from the waitress, who may recognise the hearing technology Ivy wears, and doesn’t know what to say next.

The quick-step of trainers across the stone floor break the silence and a curious little face appears in the doorway. “Mum, what did she say?”

“What country are you from?” I sign. No other comment, just a quick interpretation. This is her conversation, not mine.

“Oh! Okay!” She runs back inside and says “England!”

And so the interaction – so empowering, so joyful for a five-year-old dancing around a bakery in a foreign country, continues. This time my judgement was right, and my reward is not a biscuit, but my own enjoyment witnessing this moment from the outside. And the moment of peace with my coffee.

What works for us in helping our child to communicate independently:

  • Even when Ivy was tiny, we would encourage people to talk directly to her, rather than ask us what she wanted. If we were at a counter, for example, we would take our time, repeat the server’s question, sign it for her : “The waiter is asking - what would you like? An apple juice?” If she signed it back to us, we would interpret for her to the server. This takes time, but I think it affirmed to her that her ‘voice’, her signs, her thoughts, were important. Most people, when faced with a very cute deaf one-year-old, are patient and kind.
  • Travel: For example, when buying a train ticket, we would prepare her for it – stand back from the queue, hand her the debit card, and say: “You go and sign to the lady – one day ticket, please.” We’d let her do it, and interpret for her.
  • There are standard phrases we’ve taught her for self-advocacy, starting with “again, please?” and “sign, please” when she was using two-word sentences, and increasing in complexity to now: “I’m deaf, so could you please look at me when you’re speaking, and slow down a little?” We are working on this not coming out as “I’m deaf, so you HAVE TO SIGN!” or “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, MUM?!!!”
  • We have our mantras too - “[Family friend] cares about what you think, and wants you to understand, so it’s great to ask her to repeat what she’s asked you!” or “We love you and want you to be included, so well done for reminding us to slow down!”
  • Ivy has had a BSL interpreter booked at eye department appointments, surgical appointments, and any other appointments where a medical professional needs to ask her to do things, since she was about two and a half. She knows how to work with interpreters, knows what they do, and her confidence, engagement, and agency within the hospital is so great as a result. This also leaves us free to be parents in this context, which has a big impact on her behaviour.

Marnie and her husband Daniel are parents to Ivy (5) who is profoundly deaf, bilingual (BSL/English) and wears one cochlear implant.