Family Gatherings – “It is what it is…”

By Cecelia Klassen

*This article was first published in Family Network for Deaf Children newsletter in March 2016. It has been updated and republished in BC Hands & Voices with the permission of the author.*

Barbeques, birthday parties, Thanksgiving dinner, graduations, family reunions or any  occasion when families and friends gather together….these busy, fun events bring to the forefront the challenge of achieving fair communication access.  How do we include everyone when large groups gather together, including deaf, hard of hearing and hearing members. It should be simple, right?! 

As the parent of a young deaf adult, I want to share some of my thoughts (and hopefully wisdom!) as you raise your deaf and hard of hearing children.   I have pretty much read it all, listened to stories from deaf and hard of hearing adults feeling left out at family gatherings, and yet I still don’t have any grand solution as to how to navigate family or other group gatherings and have my young adult deaf daughter, Mari, feel fully included all the time.  

Over the years, we’ve experienced lots of awesome family gatherings, but also have had ones that were not so inclusive, where I experienced the “mom pain” – watching my deaf child miss out on conversation, relationship building and ultimately deep family connections.  I can’t always control it and I can’t always fix it but I do try my best, and so does Mari. We have come to embrace the saying: “it is what it is.”   

Family gatherings were so much easier when Mari was young; or, perhaps because she was a child, I was oblivious to the reality.  During her younger years, the cousins all played together, and life was pretty simple. The kids played hide n’ seek, dress-up, capture the flag, board games or just ran around until it was time to eat; eating was just that – eat and run!   Then came the teen years and the inevitable “mom pain” sunk in – talk, talk, talk and MORE talk, coupled with lots of laughter. Mealtimes became the epicenter of conversation. Nothing breaks a mom’s heart more than seeing your child not feeling included.   I tried my very best to make a tough situation better. 

I really believe it’s so important to keep trying. Ultimately, at the core of each of our souls is the need to be valued and included.  Family, friends and community are the foundation for this love and acceptance! Here are some of the tips and tricks that our family have used throughout the years, and still do today.  Nothing is perfect, but I do hope some of these ideas can lead to successful family connections with your deaf or hard of hearing child. Some of these tips will also help model to your family and friends how to bridge communication gaps, as well as how to include a deaf or hard of hearing member in your family or group. 

Here it goes:  My “mom tips” to improving family communication and feeling included at gatherings:

  • If you child uses American Sign Language (ASL), find an interpreter but remember this isn’t a perfect solution, especially if your child or your extended family doesn’t know how to use an interpreter.  If you don’t educate your family, they may think the interpreter is there to be your child’s friend or the single solution to communication access.  Do some homework and educate your family on how to best use the interpreter. Having an interpreter means more access to conversation, but your child still needs everyone to be involved so they feel included.  Being included and feeling included can be two very different things.
  • Invite deaf or hard of hearing friends to join the gathering.  In addition to your child’s deaf or hard of hearing friends, deaf and hard of hearing adults also act as role models to your whole family. They can demonstrate that deaf and hard of hearing children grow up to become adults, and that the communication needs of adults may be different to those of children.  
  • Plan your menu so that you aren’t in the kitchen the whole time; if you are in the kitchen, make sure that another family member is on top of ensuring that your deaf or hard of hearing child is included in the conversation.
  • Place “topic” cards on the table so that you can ask a question that everyone can answer or share their memories:  e.g., “if you could change your name, what new name would you choose?” Or “describe a situation where you were really scared”.  Have individuals take turns sharing their responses. This is great because it encourages turn-taking, and it means that your deaf or hard of hearing family member has the ability to zero in on individuals rather than watching five different conversations happening at the same time.   Hot tip: you get to control the conversation topics a bit.  Sneaky, but it works!
  • Place big posters and pens around the room with a question for everyone to answer: For example, “Name 50 things we are thankful for” or “Name something that happened this year that impacted your life.”   This helps to bring communication to a more equal playing field – by visually sharing memories or thoughts in printed word. Hot tip: this helps with literacy development too, and again a sneaky way to control the conversation topics!
  • Write notes. Have a white “dry erase” board in your kitchen or family room for fast communication.  Make sure you also have paper and pens in several areas around the house, or typing on a computer or iPad can be faster than writing notes back and forth.  There is a great app called “BIG” and it’s perfect for communicating in larger text – especially for grandparents. Kids might feel more comfortable using technology rather than paper and pen. 
  • Use name cards and pre-set the table so that your deaf or hard of hearing child is physically positioned in a good place for optimal communication access.  Hot tip:  This is also good if Uncle Frank never makes any communication effort and has a mustache, making lipreading a nightmare.  Perhaps move him further down the table. Shhhh… don’t let Uncle Frank read this!
  • Ask everyone to bring a funny or interesting photo from years ago.   This is a great visual tool to assist with communication and helps for laughter and sharing of family history too. 
  • Plan a costume theme.  This makes the event fun and creates memories.  When people are in costume they tend to loosen up and seem to gesture more.  Honestly, this really does work! 
  • Plan a funny gift exchange:  e.g., everyone brings something from their home that they no longer want (wrapped up), and put numbers on each item.   Everyone pulls a number and has to open the present – which inevitably leads to lots of laughter. Hot tip:  this doesn’t require a lot of explaining, kills time with a game that is more visually accessible and is perfect to do while you are in the kitchen preparing food.
  • Acquaint you child with family connections.  Prepare in advance by drawing out your family tree so your child knows who will be in attendance and how everyone is connected.  Show photos of who is coming to dinner (find photos on Facebook if necessary). Write out names so your child knows the spelling. Share family background so your child is up to date on what is happening in the family.  Background knowledge is the most important thing that will help your child navigate the communication topics at family gatherings. If there have been family/friend relationship changes (e.g., a divorce, illness or death), and your child is old enough to understand, let them know.  This will avoid any awkward questions at the event. 
  • If someone is planning a speech, dinner prayer or a birthday toast, ask if they can send you the text so you can prepare to interpret or let your child read the text.  This gives you the opportunity to fill in the back story or background information to your child. You may want to prepare them with photos. Hot tip:  also gives you time to learn the sign vocabulary of the words you don’t know.
  • If the TV is on – remember to always have the captioning on.  If your child uses hearing aids, make sure the background music or TV is turned down so that you have an optimum environment for clear person-to-person communication.  
  • Play games that include everyone.  This is super important – especially if the event isn’t in your home.  Volunteer to bring the games. Find games that include your deaf or hard of hearing child.  If you don’t, it’s almost guaranteed that Cousin Jordan will come up with a fast-paced, blindfolded, rhyming game that totally leaves out your child! 
  • Skip the fabric table cloth.  Buy a big roll of brown or white paper.  Put out crayons or felt pens. Everyone will doodle, write notes, play hangman.   The next day you can laugh over what was written! Hot tip:  This is a great fun, easy, rustic decorating idea! 
  • Make your table deaf or hard of hearing friendly for communication.  Rather than a long table where it is impossible to see communication (signing or lipreading), set your table up in a big square or horseshoe shape.  Maybe buffet style is better? Figure out what works for your deaf or hard of hearing child and your family. Think about communication access during the eating together time. 
  • And last but not least, when all else fails … pour yourself a glass of wine and figure out how to improve the next family event! 

It is vitally important to keep communication open with your deaf or hard of hearing child by following up on their feelings, and asking their opinion on what worked for them and what didn’t.  This will create an opportunity for relationship building between yourself and your child, and they will know that you are their ally throughout this journey. Family communication and inclusion won’t always be perfect, so don’t beat yourself up about it but you might find that by trying some creative ideas, your extended family and friends may learn something new and grow from the experience.  For you and your family, embrace and celebrate a deaf and hard of hearing friendly version of “It is what it is” and be proud of it! 

Cecelia

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