The Oscar winning short film The Silent Child portrays the life of a profoundly deaf four year old girl named Libby who was born into a middle class hearing family. Whilst watching the film it is clear to the viewer that Libby is unable to understand her family who have labelled her as ‘difficult’. Furthermore Libby is unable to communicate effectively with her family and is ‘locked in a world of silence’. A well meaning social worker starts to teach Libby to sign British Sign Language and the change in Libby is clear to the viewer. Her parents however are reluctant to learn to sign themselves and decide that they no longer wish Libby to learn which leaves Libby isolated.
The film itself is very thought provoking, resonating with many Deaf people and highlighting issues that many hearing people perhaps have never thought of. Having watched this film with my partner and son, they were shocked at my lack of emotional response to the film which was incredibly sad. You see the problem is, this scenario is nothing new to me. I have worked with numerous deaf children over the years who faced similar circumstances, and have, I am afraid almost become desensitised to is. This doesn’t mean I am heatless but that I have had to develop my own coping mechanisms.
It’s important to realise that 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents who the majority of the time have limited prior knowledge or understanding of deafness. Parents then have to wade through a mountain of conflicting information and advice to learn how best to support their child and decide what communication method is best. To say that this can be overwhelming is an understatement. Many parents having never met Deaf adults have limited expectations for their child, or on the other end of the scale, unrealistic expectations (in terms of what they are likely to achieve via their chosen communication method).
To ensure that deaf children are happy and supported it is essential that appropriate support is provided to parents straight away at diagnosis and continues through the early years and into education. The choices that parents make in the first few years of a child’s life can and will have long term consequences. This support needs to be face to face, regular, sensitive, consistent and unbiased so that parents can be supported to making informed choices. Unfortunately, in a society where social services are stretched to capacity and specialist deaf social workers are few and far between this type of support is rare. Until this changes we will continue to see children starting school with limited or no language. The consequence of this delay in language acquisition is far reaching and can follow a child throughout their schooling and into their workplace.
I for one, would celebrate the day when I wouldn’t be asked to support a teenager who through a lack of ability to be able to communicate with their parents and ongoing isolation face severe mental health difficulties, putting themselves and others in physical danger.