“Rachel Coleman is my best friend and just happens to be my little sister as well,” jokes Emilie de Azevedo Brown about her 27-year-old sister. Referring to Rachel, Emilie says, “As a child, she was shy and reserved. As a teenager, she was angry and reserved. Then she learned to express herself through her music.” Rachel taught herself to play guitar, began writing music, and started a band called “We the Living.” She sang some of her original songs with her band in the 1995 NBC Movie of the Week, Spring Fling. Rachel fell in love with music, and later with a tall skier named Aaron.
After Rachel and Aaron were married, they had their first daughter, Leah. Leah’s parents took her to band practices and concerts, and to their amazement, she was able to sleep in spite of the loud music. When she was fourteen months old, they discovered why: Leah was deaf. She never heard the music. She never heard her mom sing.
“When I realized my daughter was deaf,” Rachel admits, “I just couldn’t find a way to rationalize spending hours working on my music. My priorities changed. I put down my guitar and picked up sign language.” She and Aaron immediately started learning American Sign Language so they could teach it to Leah.
Rachel was astonished to see that within six months, Leah’s sign language vocabulary far surpassed the vocabulary of hearing children her same age. Rachel explains, “While her little friends could only point at something they wanted, Leah could actually tell us. Because she had learned to use sign language so early, it was not long before she could read written words, even though she was only two years old.”
Rachel soon learned that Leah’s advanced capabilities were fairly common among signing children– both hearing and deaf. There is an abundance of research explaining the phenomenon that she had experienced first-hand: children can communicate with signs well before they can communicate with spoken words.
Emilie and her husband also started teaching sign language to their infant son, Alex, so that he would one day be able to communicate with his cousin, Leah. Emilie was stunned one afternoon when Alex, then only ten months old, stopped fussing, looked up at her, and made the sign for “milk.” Experiences like this have played a role in prompting many daycares and preschools to incorporate sign language into their curriculum– specifically for hearing children. Like Emilie, many parents have watched in amazement as their toddlers, who cannot yet speak, sign words like “more,” “milk,” and “mom.”
Two years after this discovery, Rachel and Aaron were expecting their second daughter. An ultrasound showed spina bifida and hydrocephalus. As Emilie describes it, there was “no denial, and very little ‘Why me?’” Rachel and Aaron simply demonstrated the same attitude they did with Leah: “How can we give her the fullest life possible?”
Just as Rachel had immersed herself in learning sign language to help Leah, she began learning everything she could about spina bifida to help her second daughter, Lucy. In her research, she discovered the work of Dr. Joseph Bruner and Dr. Noel Tulipan at Vanderbilt University. They were pioneering an experimental procedure, which actually operated on children with spina bifida while they were still in their mother’s womb.
Rachel contacted Dr. Bruner and made arrangements for this procedure. At 22 weeks, Rachel’s unborn daughter, Lucy, became the 82nd baby to undergo fetal surgery at Vanderbilt University. The surgery successfully closed the hole in her spine and helped regulate the water on her brain. However, Lucy was born premature, which brought a new concern: cerebral palsy.
Doctors worried that, due to her cerebral palsy, Lucy would never be able to communicate with her deaf sister. However, Rachel has been teaching Lucy to sign. At the age of two, and in spite of her cerebral palsy, Lucy currently signs over twenty words and recognizes and responds to more than fifty signs.
There has recently been an incredible amount of media attention focusing on how infants and toddlers can communicate with signs before they can speak. The research, as well as the first-hand experience of many parents like Emilie and Rachel, demonstrates that signing children generally have higher IQ scores, are better adjusted, and read at an earlier age. The “terrible twos” are not so terrible when a child has learned to communicate his or her needs and wants. And, with more than one million Americans using sign language– 500,000 of whom are either Deaf or hearing impaired– this form of communication has become an important part of American culture.
While early communication is a blessing to all parents interested in the benefits of teaching sign language to their children, Rachel confesses a more personal goal. “My hope is that all kids will become bilingual with American Sign Language. It would be a very different world for my daughter if, at the playground, another child came up to her and signed ‘Hi friend, you-me play.’”
After years of musical silence, Rachel recently picked up that guitar again, writing the theme songs for a children’s sign language video, “Signing Time.” She used to sing for herself and her fans. Now, she sings for Leah and Lucy.