“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 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.

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.

Beginnings, Part I

I was born hearing with Hirschsprung’s, a disease that makes you stop pooping. In slightly more scientific terms, part of your intestine stops working. This means your body can’t eliminate waste, so it just builds up. Without treatment, it can be fatal.

So I was in and out of the hospital for the next two years, and underwent five surgeries. On the last one, at eighteen months old, I got an infection. I became profoundly deaf from the antibiotics they gave me to treat it. My mom thinks it was the kind of thing you can’t know about until it goes wrong. Twenty-some years later, I took a college class on genetics, did some research (read: very intense googling), and now I figure I carry a genetic defect that made me more susceptible to ototoxic medication. This is the long, boring explanation that I wrote in my final paper:

The most common of these mutations is the A1555G variant on the MTRNR1 gene, accounting for 1% of hearing loss in Caucasians and higher percentages in other ethnic groups. The A1555G mutation substitutes an adenine base for a guanine base, interrupting mitochondrial protein synthesis and impeding OXPHOS production. Though A1555G does not always directly cause hearing loss, it does make affected individuals more susceptible to the ototoxic effects of aminoglycoside, which is used in several medications. Kokotas et al. speculate that the A1555G mutation changes the 12S rRNA gene so that it resembles the 16S rRNA gene, which is a target of aminoglycoside action; this may explain aminoglycoside’s pronounced effects on the A1555G mutation (384, 387, 388; Guan 1792).

Anyway. The diagnosis. My parents were stunned. My grandma wanted to sue the doctor and the hospital; my mom didn’t see the point in it: “Money won’t bring back her hearing.” Now me, I’m glad we didn’t sue. The doctor who treated me died of cancer a year later and left behind a wife and two children. Had he lived, I think I’d have liked to go visit him, and tell him I was never angry at him. I didn’t forgive him, because there was nothing to forgive.

The truth is, I can’t miss what I never really had. I grew up deaf. It’s what I know, and it helped shape who I am, and how I see the world. At the same time, it doesn’t define me. I’m me, and that’s all there is to it.

At the time, my parents couldn’t have known that. They knew nothing about sign language, Deaf culture, auditory-verbal therapy… my mom’s only experience with deafness was a deaf girl in college that she barely understood (then again, my mom is terrible with accents). Their introduction to Cued Speech would come a few years later. In the meantime, they had a newly deaf baby, and no idea what to do with her.

A Croaking Dalek with Laryngitis.

What’s up with the name?

Long story short, I am deaf. I got a cochlear implant when I was ten. No, my parents didn’t ask me for my input. No, I didn’t and don’t resent them for it. No, it’s not a cure, and yes, it does help.

The title comes from a late-deafened British member of Parliament, Jack Ashley, who got a cochlear implant in his 70’s. He described the sound as “a croaking dalek with laryngitis,” and the phrase stuck with me. Coming up with unique URL names is ridiculously difficult, so I’m copping this one while it lasts.

No, I haven’t seen Dr. Who yet, and yes, I plan to watch the series.

OK, so what’s up with this blog? 

Well. Most deaf kids are raised with sign language or spoken language– which are often referred to as manualism or oralism respectively (quit snickering)– or a combination of both. Now me, I grew up with Cued Speech. Because it’s not terribly commonplace, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about it, so this blog is my attempt at sorting it out.

Cued Speech? What’s that?

Cued Speech is one of those things that is just difficult to explain because nobody has a frame of reference for it; it doesn’t neatly fit into any one box. The way I try to explain it, whilst floundering all over myself (“no, it’s not sign language, yes, it uses the hands but it’s not sign language, no, it’s not visual phonics, I don’t know why they’re different, they just are, no, you don’t need to voice it, yes, it represents sound but you don’t need to SAY it…”), is this:

Cued Speech is a system of visually representing the sounds of spoken language in conjunction with lipreading. It’s got eight handshapes, with about three consonants per handshape, and four movements/placements with three or four vowels per movement/placement. They’re arranged so that sounds that look the same on the lips are assigned to different handshapes– for example, /m/ goes on handshape 5, while /b/ goes with handshape 4 and /p/ with handshape 1. As you mouth/voice the words, you put the cues together like a puzzle, and presto! Cued Speech.

There are plenty of sites out there that explain it far better than I ever could, and they have video too. The National Cued Speech Association is a good place to start: www.cuedspeech.org. CueEverything has an excellent collection of damn near every Cued Speech video out there, at www.cueeverything.com.

What I’ll be doing here is sharing my experiences and observations with Cued Speech, as well as forwarding research or news related to it, on a regular basis (approximately once a week is my plan) until… I run out of things to say, I suppose. Down the road, I’d like to publish brief vlogs in both Cued and sign language. Whichever way it goes, I’ll post all about it right here.