To Sign or Speak: The KODA Question

Playing.jpgKODA Families: Following up on yesterday’s post on Deaf-hearing relationships, today we turn the spotlight onto KODA families. Short for Kids of Deaf Adults, KODAs are hearing children who have at least one Deaf parent. They may also have Deaf or hearing siblings and other relatives. Depending on their exposure to ASL and the Deaf community, KODAs grow up with varying levels of ASL fluency. How well they sign can have a profound long-lasting impact on their relationships with their parents. Ensuring that they learn to sign can be a challenging task for parents.

Chances are you have seen KODAs who could “pass” for Deaf, who sign and act like Deaf people. You have probably also seen KODAs who can hardly sign at all and who prefer to speak to their hearing parent, or Deaf parent who speaks or lipreads, if they happen to have either one. In between these two extremes are KODAs who sign enough to “get by”, KODAs who speak and sign at the same time, and even KODAs who refuse to sign at all. Needless to say, when a KODA and Deaf parent cannot communicate easily with each other, both lose out on the opportunity for a close parent-child relationship.

Fear of Speech Therapy: In KODA families with children who sign fluently, the parents are likely to communicate using ASL almost all the time – with each other and with their children. In other KODA families with children who do not sign fluently, the parents usually switch back and forth between speaking and signing to their children, depending on the situation. Some Deaf parents may find it easier or less frustrating to speak, either because their KODAs do not understand their signing or because it is more convenient to speak to KODAs in the next room, rather than walk over to the room to sign to them.

Some Deaf parents express concern about their KODAs’ ability to learn how to speak. Fearing their children may fall behind their peers and end up in speech therapy or remedial English classes, they decide to speak to them instead of sign, in hopes of exposing them to English and speech early on. In still other KODA families, one parent may speak to the KODAs, “forcing” the other parent to speak as well, because the KODAs develop a “preference” for speaking instead of signing. In some families, one KODA, usually the oldest, takes on the role of interpreting between the Deaf parents and the younger KODAs, making it less likely that the younger KODAs will ever sign fluently.

Our Perspective: So, what are parents of KODAs to do? As therapists, our bias obviously leans toward clear and effective communication in families. Just as in Deaf-hearing relationships, the more Deaf-centered the family, the more opportunity there will be for the the KODAs to sign and become comfortable with Deaf culture. Parents of KODAs may not always realize the long-term effects that can result when their children do not learn to sign fluently. When they are young, it may not seem like such a big deal if they prefer to speak or use an older sibling to interpret. When they are older, however, and dealing with curfews, dating, and other issues of adolescent angst, there is a lot more at stake if the parents and KODAs cannot communicate comfortably in sign. If KODAs don’t learn to sign in a natural signing environment when they are young, it becomes more and more difficult for them to pick it up later on.

Fears of speech therapy should not drive Deaf parents to choose speaking over signing with their KODAs. The potential loss of communication with their children is much too high a price to pay. If it so happens that a KODA does need speech therapy, it is not the end of the world. Any speech-related issues can be addressed and remedied in speech therapy. Signing skills, in contrast, cannot as easily be improved – ASL therapy, anyone? Parents who pass on Deaf culture and ASL to their KODAs give them a wonderful gift of bilingualism and biculturalism (or in some cases, when other languages and cultures exist in the family, multilingualism and multiculturalism). It is heart-breaking to see Deaf parents and KODAs need interpreters to be able to communicate with each other. Instead of parents’ worst fear being speech therapy, their worst fear should be losing out on their relationship with their children. Resources: Two organizations that offer great experiences for KODAs and their families are Metro Maryland KODA and Camp Mark 7. For grown-up KODAs, CODA-International provides a supportive community of peers.

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