Ottawa's signing Santa giving deaf children gift of inclusion

A special Santa is giving children in Ottawa who are deaf or partly deaf a special gift — he's reassuring them that they're not alone this Christmas, or at any other time.

'It doesn't matter if it's Christmas or any other event, they need to be included'

Santa uses sign language to wow children who are deaf and hard of hearing. 0:40

It's not the first time three-year-old Molly Giroux has seen Santa Claus, but it is the first time she's heard him.

The little girl in bright red glasses was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss when she was still a toddler, and doctors told her parents it would only get worse.

They look at you and go, 'Oh wow, Santa's just like me.' I say, 'Yeah, you and I, we're special.'- Michel David, a.k.a. Santa

About a year ago she underwent surgery and now hears with the aid of cochlear implants — her "ears," as her family calls the devices attached to a little blue headband.

Now she sits beside Santa, staring up at him intently as he removes his hat to show that he, too, wears a hearing aid. Molly turns to look at her parents, Eric and Sarah Giroux, delight written all over her face.

"It's pretty special to see Santa hears the same way Molly hears," Sarah said.

"For the first time she's actually heard Santa," Eric said. "To see her smile like that with Santa was really fun to see."
Michel David enjoys pulling off his hat to show the deaf and partly deaf children who visit him that Santa, too, wears a hearing aid. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

'They need to be included'

Don't tell Molly, but Santa is really Michel David.

David began to lose his own hearing when he was 15, and recalls what it was like to grow up in silence. Now he can communicate using American sign language, and also hears with the aid of cochlear implants.
Molly Giroux, 3, visited Santa at an event at Ottawa's Funhaven play park last month. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

"I think too many kids grow up ... thinking that I'm all alone," he said. "There's no one else like me in school, or the whole world, and that's wrong. There's so many of us. It doesn't matter if it's Christmas or any other event, they need to be included."

One of the best parts of the job, David says, is when he pulls off his hat.

"You can just see their eyes brighten up. They look at you and go, 'Oh wow, Santa's just like me.' I say, 'Yeah, you and I, we're special.'"

'Beautiful to watch'

The event at Ottawa's Funhaven play park was organized by the Quota Club of Ottawa and Ontario Hands & Voices, a non-profit organization that supports families with children who are deaf or partly deaf. Volunteers from Sign Language Interpreting Associates Ottawa were also on hand.

In this, the event's fourth year, 150 people showed up to see Santa.

"This year's event just went wild and we almost had to turn people away," said Quota Club of Ottawa president Willy Lee.
The Dambrosio family drove all the say from Toronto to visit Ottawa's signing Santa. 'It was beautiful to watch,' said Cesare Dambrosio of his children's reaction. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Cesare Dambrosio, his wife and three children under 10 — all deaf — drove all the way from Toronto to attend the event.

They've visited Santas at malls before, but struggled to understand what was being said.

"In a mall with no sign language, just lip reading, it's hard," said Dambrosio through an interpreter. "Sometimes the kids will ask me, 'What did he say?' But I can't really tell them."

This visit was different.

"The kids were so excited," Dambrosio said. "It was an amazing conversation. It was just so beautiful to watch. They were just signing away. I just feel so happy and inspired."
Filippo Dambrosio and his father Cesare describe their emotions after communicating with sign language Santa 0:23