There is no better example of the emotional journey we’ve been on over the last two years, since our daughter was born without her right hand, than looking at our progress through our baby signing classes.
I started attending Sing and Sign classes with Hero when she was around 8 months old. It’s a superb baby and toddler class, which develops the use of hand signs and gestures as a means to supporting the development of a child’s speech and vocabulary. Hero is a bit of a late talker and so we’ve found the signs an invaluable and fun means of communicating with her and her with us.
Sitting in the spotlight
And yet, when we first started I really struggled with the classes. As you can imagine, the class is all about hands and how we use them. The opening song at every class called for the children to hold up their hands and wiggle their fingers. Back then, when Hero was younger and my feelings were all a little more raw, I used to get a twinge of heartache every single time.
Back then I felt like the song lyrics shone a little spot light on Hero and I, I felt like it drew attention to her difference and I’d find myself looking down at the floor and trying to ignore those feelings of being in a goldfish bowl. All feelings I strongly suspect many parents of a child with a difference can understand and empathise with. Also feelings that, I’m sure, weren’t entirely true (see my post about feeling hypervigilant). I don’t really think anyone was looking at us, maybe they were at first, maybe they weren’t. But the reality doesn’t shake that sense of insecurity you might feel inside from time to time as you come to terms with a child’s difference.
However, as time wore on and we kept going to classes I started to adjust. Many of my blog posts have highlighted our journey from worried and hyper-sensitive to accepting and confident; it doesn’t occur to me now that Hero is anything other than one of the Sing and Sign crew. I don’t even notice the words and the lyrics anymore, the ones that at first felt so painfully obvious.
Two-handed signs for a two-handed world
Another little hurdle I felt that we faced was in making and expressing the signs accurately when Hero was missing half the tools to do so. Like many things in life British Sign Language, and other signing variants, are designed for a two-handed world.
At first adapting the hand signs, while simple, still sent these feelings of sensitivity bubbling up in me. Sure, we can adapt the signs, but it felt a bit rotten that we had to. Those feelings say a lot more about my own emotional journey as a parent of a child with a limb difference than they do about any real challenges we may have faced using the signs in class!
When I finally plucked up the courage to speak to our class leader, Beccy, about how I felt using and adapting the signs she was nothing but reassuring that any changes we made would not remotely be a problem.
“At Sing and Sign, we don’t teach sign language as such, we teach communication. Communicating through sign with your pre-verbal little one is an amazing window into their worlds. It doesn’t actually matter what signs or gestures you use and this makes signing possible for everyone!” – Beccy, Sing and Sign Chepstow Newport Lydney Monmouth
Unconscious little changes
Up until our second term the signs had been pretty easy to adapt and Hero started doing it naturally and unconsciously – not realising she had any difference at all of course. However, when we started learning the British Sign Language alphabet I began to foresee some possible issues. A number of the letter signs require the use of fingers from both hands, something that’s simply impossible when you have only five.
Exactly as I’d done after being told of her difference at our twenty-week scan, I took to the Internet and researched how to use BSL with one hand. I couldn’t find a lot to help me guide Hero. While limb difference is the norm for us, it turns out that it’s not so common that there is an official one-handed signing system! However, I was eventually directed to a young lady’s Instagram account and YouTube videos. Just like Hero, Elizabeth had been born without one of her hands and despite this has taken up and excelled at British Sign Language.
She had been kind enough to share videos of her one-hand-adapted signing online. She bravely put herself out there and was keen to test how well she was being understood. She’s been reassured by her viewers and followers that, despite using her limbs slightly differently to make the signs, she was easily and completely understood. I loved trawling through Elizabeth’s videos and I started to use some of her adaptations with Hero in class.
“I’m always reassuring parents that they don’t need to know the official sign for something. Make it up! That’s part of the fun! Babies and toddlers quite often adapt the signs that you show them anyway and may even progress to making up their own. If signs need to be changed slightly to accommodate differences, then that’s no problem. Consistency is the key!”- Beccy, Sing and Sign Chepstow Newport Lydney Monmouth
Offering reassurance and finding some of my own
When I set out to write this post I was hoping to reassure other parents who might be nervous about attending baby groups or similar style classes with their limb-different little one, having received numerous messages expressing that fear. Yet, as I began writing, I realised that as well as (hopefully) reassuring others, an exploration of our baby signing journey has shown me just how much change there has been in my own mindset, from the worrisome early days when Hero was just months old to now as I wrangle our energetic, tenacious and entirely unstoppable two year old!
From our very first term when I felt self-conscious and acutely different in our two-handed world, Hero now totally rocks these differentiated signs. They were designed for communication and have given Hero and I a fantastic means to understand one another. We’ve been able to have entire conversations using only our hands before she’d even developed the vocabulary to express the same things out loud.
I’ve gone from self-consciousness and a little fearful to confident and certain and, as I’ve said time and time again, it’s been Hero who’s enabled that change in me. It didn’t matter how many times someone told me she would be just fine, I could never quite let the worries go until she started showing me for herself. She didn’t wonder if she should do the signs or not, she didn’t question whether they were different to the other kids’ signs or whether they even made sense. She just went ahead and did it – exactly as she approaches everything in life.