New Brunswick

Lost years: Mother of deaf girl urges parents to learn sign language as soon as possible

A Rothesay mother urges parents with profoundly deaf babies to start learning sign language as soon as possible. Heather Chandler regrets losing three critical years of early language development.

Heather Chandler of Rothesay regrets not being able to communicate with her daughter Allison, 6, sooner

Heather Chandler, right, with her deaf daughter Allison, 6, husband Andrew and son Leland, 8, says she'd like to see more intervention when it comes to providing instruction in American Sign Language. (Submitted)

Allison Chandler may be deaf, but the six-year-old Rothesay child has no problem letting her mother know she'd like some soda pop and she'd like it right away.

When the answer is no, Allison argues the injustice with her eyes and her posture and an urgent pleading message that flows through her arms and her hands.

Heather Chandler says it's a joy and relief to see her daughter communicating so assertively in American Sign Language and only regrets she left it so late.

For way too long, Chandler says, she and her husband, Andrew, and their son, Leland, didn't know the little girl who was living among them.

"Essentially, she was language-deprived for three years," Chandler said.

Focused on the fix

Allison's hearing deficiency was flagged early, first by the universal newborn screening test and later while Allison was being prepped for heart surgery at five months old.

With the heart crisis behind them, Chandler said she then felt pushed by doctors and society to pursue any medical fix that might make Allison "more normal."

"Everyone seemed to be steering us to cochlear implants," she said, referring to the medical devices that bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve.

This six-year-old deaf girl could not communicate for 3 years

4 years ago
Duration 0:57
Allison Chandler is deaf and spent years unable to communicate with her parents. Now, her mom is an advocate of early access to American Sign Language education.

The surgery is not performed in New Brunswick, which meant the family first had to travel to Halifax and later to Toronto.

In both cities, specialists decided Allison was not a candidate because of existing nerve damage.

It took months to get those answers and even longer, Chandler said, to come to terms with the rejection.

Meanwhile, nobody was guiding the family to learn ASL.

'Most parents don't learn sign language'

Agencies for the deaf in Canada often cite the statistic that 95 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. The figures trace back to U.S. studies done in the 1970s.

There's also a wide perception that most of those hearing parents never learn American Sign Language, mainly because it's difficult to master.

When Allison was two, Chandler tried to find ASL tutorials on the internet to teach herself at home but she felt she was "doing it wrong," and it was hard to stay motivated all by herself.

The more communication she got, the happier she became and the happier our family became.- Heather Chandler, mother

In late 2014, she contacted the non-profit Saint John Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, which has since become a provincial agency, New Brunswick Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services.

Chandler said the agency started sending a deaf interpreter to her home to teach the family ASL, starting with the parents, so they could model the language for Allison.

"That's when our family started to take a different turn," Chandler said.

"The more communication she got, the happier she became and the happier our family became."

In 2018, Chandler went to work for the agency, where she advocates earlier access to sign language instruction.

Deaf schooling then

The residential school model that existed for most of the last century has long been abandoned in the Maritimes — its legacy still unresolved.

Two months ago, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia certified a class action lawsuit in which it's alleged that children from Atlantic Canada who were sent to the schools for the deaf in Halifax and Amherst, N.S., were subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

But one of Allison's deaf interpreters, Joann Bourque, said the Amherst school lifted her out of ignorance and darkness.

Joann Bourque, pictured here at age 12, says learning sign language changed her life forever. (Submitted by Joann Bourque)

Growing up one of five deaf siblings in a family of 12 children in Charlo, Bourque didn't learn a thing in regular school until Grade 4.

Nothing on the board made sense, she said. Written words had no meaning.

"I was in school for three years without an interpreter," Bourque said in ASL, which was then conveyed into spoken English through an interpreter.

"I had no idea what was being said."

When her mother finally learned about Amherst and sent Bourque there, sign language changed her life forever.

"Once I got that language, I fell in love," she said. "I could communicate with people and I just totally felt myself."

Deaf schooling now

Deaf and hard of hearing children in New Brunswick now attend regular schools and receive education support services through the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority.

Only about 300 children in New Brunswick receive services for hearing impairment, according to the agency.

Chandler said the Atlantic agency is now supporting a pilot project for Allison that provides her with two interpreters at Rothesay Elementary.

The first interpreter can hear what the teacher says and convert it into ASL.

Deaf language specialist recounts lost years when she had no way to communicate

4 years ago
Duration 1:48
This deaf woman couldn’t communicate with her hearing parents or her four deaf siblings for years, until she was finally taught sign language at a residential school.

The second interpreter is deaf and Chandler said she takes the time to make sure Allison understands what is happening in the fast-paced classroom and fills in the blanks that exist for deaf children who are growing up in a hearing world.

"For example," Chandler said. "One day Allison asked me about the thermostat on the wall."

"She had never heard anyone in the family say, 'Oh, it's cold, turn the thermostat up.' She never heard us talking about it. She had no idea."

Chandler said the deaf interpreter is helping Allison catch up on much of what she missed in those critical early years, when no one in the family could communicate with her.

She said she hopes her daughter will reach her full potential and recover from all that lost time.


Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.


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