“Do you still use Cued Speech?”

For the most part, I get this question in good faith and don’t mind answering.

Once in a while, however, I get the vibe that the asker is hunting for “weak points” in Cued Speech, especially when they see me using sign language to communicate. Needless to say, this makes me a bit uncomfortable since I don’t want my statements to be taken out of context.

On a pragmatic level, it’s like asking if I still use Mandarin. Most of the time I don’t, but if I visit China or a Chinatown, then yes, of course I’m going to use Mandarin– at least as best as I can, while utterly butchering the tones. Likewise, when I visit cueing friends, I’ll use Cued English with them. If I’m with deaf or signing friends, I’ll use sign language. The environment determines what I use. It’s as simple as that.

So rest assured, I’m not going to ever give up Cued Speech. English is my native language, and Cued Speech is my most accurate and reliable way of visually conveying that language in real time.

Cued Speech is not Visual Phonics

DISCLAIMER: In describing Visual Phonics, I’m going off what I’ve seen from those who have used it or learned it, including videos on Youtube. If my information here is incorrect, please let me know in the comments. Also bear in mind that this is not intended to be a value judgment; it’s simply my attempt at explaining how Visual Phonics and Cued Speech differ based on what I know. 

Like Cued Speech, Visual Phonics has a cue for each phoneme in the English language, and they are based on pronunciation, not orthography. Its aim is to give visual access to the phonemes of the English language. With this definition, you can see why Cued Speech and Visual Phonics are often lumped together in the same category. I see some key differences, though, and a lot of it has to do with how Cued Speech was designed for maximum efficiency in movement.

If you’re not familiar with Cued Speech, trot on over to this chart and note the handshapes and placements:

http://www.cuedspeech.org/pdfs/guide/Cue-Chart-American-English.pdf

So, with that in mind, here are the differences I see:

  • Handshapes. 
    VP: 46 cues, one for each phoneme. These cues are akin to very distinct gestures or individual “signs.”
    CS: 8 handshapes, with 3-4 consonants per handshape. These handshapes are held flat and are differentiated by finger extensions.
  • Movement.
    VP: These cues seem to imitate the movement or rhythm of the phoneme (for example, long vowel sounds versus short ones). I don’t know for sure if this design is deliberate, but I do notice the correlation.
    CS: Four locations around the face– chin, cheek, side, throat. Like the handshapes, 3-4 vowels are assigned to each location.
  • Communication.
    VP: I don’t know of Visual Phonics being used as anything other than a speech support. If anyone does, let me know in the comments. It does look like it would be cumbersome to use in real-time communication, but again, let me know if I’m mistaken.
    CS: Can be used as real-time communication or speech support. Cued Speech was designed for effective movement and least strain on the wrist and fingers. Cornett chose the handshapes he did for a reason; you can move easily from one handshape to the other, and from one placement to another, whilst matching speaking speed.

This is what I see right off the bat. If you’ve anything to add, there’s the comment button below.

“Cued Speech is just a tool.”

And sometimes that’s followed up with “…not a communication method.”

Well, first off, I’m a native cuer. I can cue anything to another cuer, and he’ll understand everything I say, and vice versa. It doesn’t matter if we voice or not; all the phonetic components of English are right there on our lips and hands. That is communication! It’s complete language access.

If you want to get picky about it, everything is a tool– i.e., a way to accomplish a particular end. Even sign language is a tool. Spoken language is a tool. Written language is a tool. They’re all ways of communicating. Cued Speech is an exact representation of an existing language.

The nice thing about Cued Speech is that it can be used by itself, voiced or unvoiced, alongside sign language, as a speech therapy support, as reading/vocabulary support, with d/hh kids, with autistic or learning-disabled kids, with ESL speakers…

The key word there is “can.” Its use is ultimately up to whoever uses it. Really, the fact that Cued Speech is a tool is probably its greatest strength: it can fit into a variety of approaches without detracting from their central philosophies.

Why Not Both?

Growing up, I never really saw a conflict between sign language and Cued Speech. Even if I couldn’t quite articulate it yet at four years old, I could tell they were different and didn’t see any reason to pick one over the other. As I got older, people asked me about the difference, so I’d tell them that signs are based on words and cues are based on sounds. Sometimes they’d ask me which I liked better, and I couldn’t really answer because, well, it was like comparing apples and oranges. Later on, when I connected with other deaf adult cuers, I found that we’d often code-switch between Cued Speech and American Sign Language.

All of this, by the way, mirrors my experiences with other languages– notably, Mandarin and my 2011 study abroad in Beijing with other international students. We jumped between languages a lot, depending on what was most appropriate for the context. (One of these days, I need to post my story about having a conversation in ASL with the one other hard-of-hearing guy in the program, after a semester of full immersion in Mandarin.)

Personally, I find ASL useful for expressing emotions that may not have an appropriate English equivalent, whereas Cued English helps me articulate concepts in a precise, orderly manner. Sometimes I’ll combine the two– for example, I may use a classifier on my left hand to show spatial placement or shape while cueing a description with my right hand. That’s just me, though; others will almost certainly differ.

Some people seem to think using both will “confuse” deaf children. Thing is, I know people in Europe who grew up speaking as many as five, six different languages. Why can’t deaf kids achieve the same thing through ASL and Cued English? We’ve got reams and reams of research out there supporting bilingual education. Personally, I think Cued English would tie in perfectly with the Bilingual-Bicultural educational model in residential schools now, and I’ve spoken to several educators who feel the same way.

That said, I do understand the concern about Cued Speech taking precedence over ASL, or favoring a purely auditory-oral/”fixing deaf people” approach reminiscent of the days of Bell (as well-intentioned as he was). No matter how good our technological and educational approaches become, there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution; and we will probably always have a varying spectrum of deaf people in terms of language and speech production.

A fellow cuer, Aaron Rose, recently said of American Sign Language and Cued Speech, “You’re comparing apples and oranges, but at the same time both are used to nourish the body.” And that’s really probably the best way to look at it.

Addendum to Changing Perspectives: A New World

Another cuer contacted me to share that her experiences with the Deaf community did not quite match up with what I’d shared in my last post, Changing Perspectives: A New World. I had written that “[the d/Deaf community at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee] wasn’t this cloistered community that I’d expected. People had no problem with the fact that I used a cochlear implant or Cued Speech (most were quite curious about Cued Speech, actually) and could just get by with a smattering of Signed English at first.”

Now, I should clarify that these experiences took place mostly within UWM. Outside of UWM, I got more varied responses, although still overwhelmingly accepting. I think it depended on several factors, which I’ll outline soon.

Truth be told, I will probably not post much about the positive interactions here, because although “everybody got along, got what they needed, and is happy” is generally the desired outcome, it isn’t really much of a post. The few negative parts are where we still need improvement, likely through education and awareness. All that said, I will always, always shoot for balanced, constructive discussion. We really don’t have anything to gain by making enemies out of each other.

For me, I think several factors helped at UWM:

1) Diversity. UWM has/had a quite diverse community of d/hh students. Many came from a mainstreamed background, but we had several students and teachers who attended or graduated from residential schools for the deaf. We also represented a wide range of communication styles, from pure ASL to Signed Exact English to Cued Speech, and many of us used hearing aids and cochlear implants too.

I think a big part of this is our (in my opinion) excellent accessibility services program; they were truly committed to meeting each student’s individual needs and preferences. ASL, Signed English, Cued Speech, captioning– whatever you requested, they made sure their staff were equipped to meet that demand.

The size may also have played a part in it; compared to schools like RIT, Gallaudet, and CSUN, we had a fairly small d/hh community, so it may have been a bit harder to form cliques.

2) Age. I do notice a generational gap, starting around 1990, between what I think of as the “old school deaf”– raised in residential schools, used ASL as their primary language, had bad experiences with the auditory-verbal approach– and younger deaf people, more of whom tend to be mainstreamed and/or implanted, and with much better educational approaches too. The latter tended to be much more open-minded and accepting.

3) Mutual Respect. Pretty much right away, I took up ASL– I got many compliments about how fast I’d improved– and started learning about Deaf Culture. I always tried to show respect and appreciation for others’ perspectives, even when we disagreed. I think that made it much easier for others to show me the same respect and appreciation in return.

Changing Perspectives: A New World

For as long as I can remember, I grew up with the impression that deafness was a disability, and that I was the one who had to change—to work harder than everyone else—in order to “integrate” into the mainstream hearing world. I had to take years of speech therapy, one to three times a week, and go to mainstreamed schools, and wear my implant all the time. I remember having my mom as a transliterator in church and at youth group events. For many years, I just didn’t think much of it.

I mean, it was all I’d known, and the biggest things I had to worry about in middle school were squabbling with the boys I found annoying– which, in retrospect, were all of them. When I turned 13, things started to shift. I kept telling myself I was just a loner and preferred to go my own way, and to some degree, that was true. Over time, though, the feeling of isolation just got worse and worse. It got a little better in high school thanks to Emily, who opened my world just by being this shining example of kindness and grace. More than anyone else, she showed me how to be a friend.

Even so, the friends I’d made in middle school started finding new circles in high school, and while we still hung out, I had no idea where or how to find new ones. More than that, I couldn’t deny my growing identity crisis. On one hand, I was becoming more painfully aware of how my deafness bled into everything, even with people I loved. There was always, always this gap, and I didn’t know how to close it. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be shunted into this “deaf box,” where everything I did and became was all about deafness.

Before I entered college, I was skeptical about Deaf Culture, especially since I was hardly the “ideal” Deaf person: I grew up with an emphasis on spoken and auditory communication, I have a cochlear implant, I used Cued Speech rather than American Sign Language, and I saw deafness as more of a nuisance than anything else.

And then I took ASL classes at UWM, and met many Deaf people, and gradually my perspective changed. It wasn’t this cloistered community that I’d expected. People had no problem with the fact that I used a cochlear implant or Cued Speech (most were quite curious about Cued Speech, actually) and could just get by with a smattering of Signed English at first. For the first time since I left the Montessori school in Mount Prospect, I was on equal footing. For once, deafness didn’t factor in communication at all. I didn’t have to work so hard at it, and if I didn’t join in on a conversation, it was of my own volition. I didn’t have to “default” to a passive listening role out of fear of embarrassing myself because I couldn’t follow the entire conversation. I understood everything—or close to it—and chose to not participate. And to be honest, I found the Deaf
Culture’s perspective of deafness– as a variation in the human condition rather than solely a medical deficiency– to be quite redeeming.

I still cue. I still talk. I still use my cochlear implant. I still use American Sign Language (or, really, a Signed English variant, but I try to get as close to pure ASL as I can). I have a pretty even mix of deaf and hearing friends with a wide range of communication styles, but that doesn’t matter; we find a way to make it work, and we learn things from each other. In the end, I decided that I’m Hannah, I’m me, and while deafness and all the issues contained therein are a part of me, they don’t have to be all there is to me. Life’s too short to think about deaf or hearing, ASL or English. There’s a whole world out there, and I wanted to go see it.

Transitions, Part II

One thing to understand: my parents had clashed with the local school district for years to ensure that I got cued language transliteration instead of sign language interpretation, as well as speech therapy services– particularly since there was no way they could have afforded those services on their own. From what I gather, there were several reasons for the district’s resistance:

  • I went to school in another district (first, the one near Chicago, then the ones in Racine while we lived in a neighboring district).
  • I attended private instead of public schools.
  • Possible underfunding and understaffing in the district, from what local educators told me years later.

I’m not saying these reasons were right or wrong; that’s just what we had to work with. Ultimately, it came down to this: as residents of our particular district, we were legally entitled to the best services for me, whether we got it directly from the district, or elsewhere. This did not stop them from throwing my parents curveballs, though. I think at least a couple times, it came down to hiring a lawyer and having him send mean letters to city hall.

So, when I enrolled in University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, my parents and I were expecting another similar fight. Much to our pleasant surprise, they just asked if we knew of any transliterators in the area whom they could hire. We gave them Rosie’s number, and they hired her immediately. Over that next year, they would proceed to train four or five of their staff– interpreters and captionists– in cued language transliteration. By the end of my second year or so, UWM had three transliterators who could cue fluently.

Dealing With The Police

A slight deviation from my usual schedule and topic, because this is something I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. The ACLU has released some advice for d/hh people on how to interact with the police, and the video is signed by Marlee Matlin herself. Although it’s primarily tailored to sign language, I think the information here is excellent for cuers as well.

My interactions with police have always been positive, but unfortunately, there are several d/hh people who can’t say the same. A big part of the problem is miscommunication and not knowing normal procedure. Matlin explains a bit more in the video (captioned):

The ACLU link’s right here: https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/deaf-rights-what-do-when-dealing-police?redirect=deafrights

And the video link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAvewviVwjY

Transitions, Part I

In fourth grade, I was mainstreamed into a small parochial school in Racine, Wisconsin. My homeroom teacher learned Cued Speech so she could teach me directly alongside the other hearing children. She’d teach in English and cue what she said. When I took classes in other subjects like music or art, she’d cue for me there as well. This worked well for our situation because our school combined several grades and subjects into one class; I started in 4th grade, in that teacher’s 3rd-4th grade class, then we both moved to the 5th-8th grade class.

I would continue to use this model for most of my school years with one exception in my freshman year, when I had formal transliterators for the first time. Two sisters from my church, Rosie and Emily, took up Cued Speech in order to transliterate for me. In fact, Emily borrowed Rosie’s handouts from the workshops she had attended, and went for a walk to study the system. It took her a while to become fluent, but it worked. Even several years later without cueing, she still remembers how to do it– although she will tell you she’s bad at it.

During my freshman year, Emily also started a homeschooling group with her two youngest siblings (twins, both my age) and two of their friends. Over time, a few more students joined the group. When my parochial school closed at the end of my freshman year, Emily got accreditation to turn her homeschooling group into a certified school, and I transferred to it for the rest of my high school years. We did the same teaching/transliteration deal as before, and it worked beautifully.

The most students we ever had at any one time was 15, evenly divided between boys and girls. We had structured classes in the lower apartment of the house that my teacher lived in; outside of that, we could study upstairs or outside, take extracurricular subjects like Latin, start independent studies, and go on field trips. That turned out to be the best school I’d ever attended. I graduated valedictorian in 2008, which is rather less impressive when you take into account the fact that I was the resident nerd and bookworm out of four graduating students, and enrolled in UW-Milwaukee for the following semester.

Beginnings, Part II

So, here I was, a freshly-minted deaf baby with hearing parents who, like maybe 90% of everybody else out there, knew nothing about deafness whatsoever.

Mom gives me different versions of the story every time I ask her, but this is what I gather: we started off with Signed English, from which the entire family developed a working vocabulary. We have Christmas home videos of mini-me scolding my mom in sign, “don’t step on the [gift] box!” She still has the huge dictionaries that she bought to teach herself sign language. To this day I still communicate with my siblings mostly in a smattering of Signed English and talking, although both of them know the Cued Speech system and can use it haltingly. Dunno why; that’s just how it turned out in our family.

My parents didn’t have much faith in their local school system, so they opted to homeschool me first. Mom, in particular, felt that I was far ahead of my peers academically; she tells me that even as a toddler, I showed high intelligence. Mom had read about the dismal literacy rates among deaf children, and she did not think that I would have the means to reach my fullest potential in our local programs.

When I was four, she read “a big book on Cued Speech”[*] that featured Benjamin Lachman and the Alexander Graham Bell Montessori School in Mount Prospect, Illinois. Now, being from Chicago, Mom knew where the school was and called them. After a conversation with one of the directors there (Ann Bleuer?), Mom decided to enroll me in AGBMS. At the time, we lived near Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

She tells me that almost instantly she saw progress in my reading and spoken language skills. Mom learned the system in one week or one month (again, different versions), although it took her a few more months to attain fluency; and she became a transliterator for another cueing kid in the Chicago district. So for the next five years, we would wake up at 5am to make the hour-long drive down the I-94 to Mount Prospect, where she’d drop me off at school then go to her job as a transliterator at another school. When school went out, I’d wait for her to come pick me up so we could make another hour-long trip back home.

Looking back on it, those early morning memories seem so surreal. I remember dawns full of fog so thick, we could only see the red tail lights of other cars. A pheasant running out in front of us in pouring rain, its plumed tail held high. Whiteout blizzards, and the little red doodle toy that I drew compulsively on, and donuts from the bakery near the school. I liked the rectangular ones with vanilla frosting. Still do.


[*] I’m guessing it was The Cued Speech Resource Book for Parents of Deaf Children by Dr. Orin Cornett and Mary Elsie Daisey. The more recent version, the one I call the Cued Speech Bible because I can never remember its full name, is Cued Speech and Cued Language Development for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children, by Carolyn LaSasso, Kelly Crain, and Jacqueline Laybert.