When I was a child, I wanted to learn how to sign, like Deaf people. I didn’t know any Deaf people, so I don’t know why I wished that. Later, I joined the Girl Guides. To earn a badge, I learnt the signed alphabet. Many years went by. In the mid-1980s, I was given the opportunity (another story) to start learning British Sign Language. As part of the learning process, I regularly attended the local Deaf Club where I made a group of friends. My signing improved, and I started taking BSL exams.
I live on the south coast of England, my daughter lives in highlands of Scotland. In 1988, my first grandchild was born – with multiple special needs, including the inability to speak. When she was around five years old, she began to learn a simple sign language called Makaton so she could communicate her life needs. My grand daughter came for her first visit around that time, with her mum. As well as other special needs, she has a form of autism, and being in a strange house with everyone milling around began to distress her. I took her out into our garden.
We walked carefully and silently up the garden until we came to the pond. We sat down and watched the fish. She gave a deep sigh and began to relax. She looked at me. I said, “fish”. This was clearly not a word on her life needs list. Then I signed ‘fish’, pointed to the fish, and signed ‘fish’ again. She signed ‘fish’ and smiled. I signed it back to her. Then a neighbour’s cat joined us. Actually, it was there to hook a fish out of the pond, if it got the chance, but with me there it settled down to wash itself as if that were its purpose for being there all along.
Birds like our garden for its insects. My grand daughter added two more signs to her vocabulary. Turns out she adores cats. “Cat, bird, fish!” became our greeting to each other after that.
By the end of the 1990s, my grand daughter had created her own form of modified Makaton, and I had become a CSW – communication support working with Deaf students in schools and colleges, Deaf professionals in the workplace, and as a tutor to special needs students with hearing, like my grand daughter, but no speech.
Life has taught me many things. One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that language is so much more than words, and words are so much more than language.
“Cat, bird, fish!” to you all. Stay safe and well.