Cracking the CODA – children of deaf adults break the silence on their challenging world

Cracking the CODA – children of deaf adults break the silence on their challenging world
Emilia Jones stars as the child of deaf adults in 'CODA', which won Best Picture at the 2022 Oscars. (Image: Supplied by Apple+)

Hearing people take things for granted – and this is never more obvious than to the children of deaf parents, who tell us what they’ve learnt along the way.

Andries van Niekerk, a specialist at the National Institute for the Deaf (NID) in Worcester, grew up in a home of limited spoken language.

“The spoken language was primarily between my brother and I, not from my parents,” he explains. “My mother could speak relatively well, but my father not. They mostly use South African Sign Language – SASL for short – to talk with us.”

Van Niekerk is forthright about the fact that being a CODA – the child of deaf adult/s – is not easy: “Being a CODA has a lot of challenges. My parents didn’t have access to a lot of information. There was much we did not know about the world that we only discovered at a later age.”

Despite these communication challenges, Van Niekerk values the unique brand of multilingualism he possesses as a result.

“The benefit is that I am not only multilingual, but I am also multimodal multilingual, which means that I know languages in two different modalities,” he notes. “Some research indicates that this is beneficial for cognitive development.”

He learnt SASL before spoken language, which he picked up from “neighbours, the daycare centre and grandparents”.

Although this may seem unconventional, he adds language-learning processes like this are not radically different from typical early language development of any other kind.

She laments having to see how her father is occasionally excluded from conversations with hearing people or how people will sometimes steer clear of him at gatherings

“Cognitively, there aren’t many differences; the same language centres of the brain are used regardless of modality,” Van Niekerk says. “There is some extra development in the motor centres of the brain, which makes sense, as sign languages rely on motor skills.”

CODA siblings Caitlin and Marco Terblanche grew up with a hearing mother and deaf father. Both were raised as English and SASL speakers.

For Caitlin, a qualified sonographer who now lives in Australia, the community her family has found through her father’s deafness is indispensable.

“It’s a really awesome community. They look at things from a very different perspective,” she says. “To be able to be hearing and be part of the community in a way, really gives you a different outlook on life and [helps you] see the way they see things.”

She adds, however, that there can be many cons to this upbringing. She laments having to see how her father is occasionally excluded from conversations with hearing people or how people will sometimes steer clear of him at gatherings because of the effort required to communicate with him.

Caitlin also says things can become personally tricky with SASL, since sign language can differ considerably by region.

Now that she is based in Australia, she’s noticed that SASL is a bit different and slightly slower in development relative to other parts of the world.

In her experience away from her native South Africa so far, Caitlin has struggled with different variations of sign language, particularly the double-hand versus single-hand representation of the alphabet.

Practical benefits

For Marco, her brother, growing up with SASL came with more practical benefits. He laughs while explaining that it helps with being able to communicate from a distance without having to shout, or if you need to communicate discreetly among hearing people who do not know sign language.

“I didn’t even really notice it,” he says. “I was taught it as I was growing up; it just felt natural. I don’t remember struggling to learn it.”

One difficulty for Marco growing up as a CODA was that it seemed to him that people thought a deaf person was cognitively impaired or had learning difficulties, which is not always the case.

He explains that when you can hear your own voice, it helps develop speech, which deaf people do not have, so their speech sounds different to our own.

Emila Jones and Troy Kotsur in ‘CODA’. (Image: Supplied by Apple+)

“Deaf people normally speak differently; you can hear it,” Marco says. “I think people, when they hear [deaf people speak], they think something’s maybe wrong with them, but they’re just like everyone else.”

The responsibility to bridge the communication gap between deaf parents and the hearing world is often felt by CODAs, despite that responsibility weighing less heavily over time.

For Van Niekerk, growing up in an earlier time – without cellphones, emails or the technology that makes communication so much easier today – meant that he and his brother had a lot of responsibility to communicate on behalf of his parents for things involving school, doctors and banks.

“Today, many deaf parents try to avoid asking their kids to help, as most kids are too young for such responsibility,” he says. “But what I’ve seen in my social circle is that some of the kids want to try to help.”

Research in 2018 by Nomfundo Moroe and Victor de Andrade on the effect of gender and birth order on hearing children of deaf parents found that female children and/or the eldest child often assume the responsibility of “interpreter” in the family.

Although Van Niekerk does not have a sister, he does “have friends who are also CODAs, and it is the daughters who are helping out – the son stays out of it”.

“No idea why this is the case,” he admits.

Caitlin’s experience is similar: “I don’t know how many times [my father has] gone to the bank and then he comes home and asks me to go with him, because they’re not understanding him.” She adds that she has to write down what her father wants to buy at a shop because he knows they won’t understand him.

Deaf voices need to be heard: Recognition of SA Sign Language is an important first step

“There is a big thing in the deaf community that the hearing don’t make an effort with them. I obviously know how my dad has felt over many, many years, and I don’t want him to feel like that if I can help it,” Caitlin says. “If I’m in a situation when I can just interpret, I would rather just do it and make him feel included.”

Although she describes her brother as “more relaxed” about interpreting, she says her father will often pick her to elaborate on what people are saying.

“In hearing settings, people just talk and they don’t realise he’s standing there and he doesn’t understand,” Caitlin says. “So very, very often, after every story’s been told, I have to repeat it to him in sign language, and I have that responsibility because I want him to be included… It’s a natural responsibility.”

Barriers and limitations

For Marco, growing up as a CODA has brought some difficulties, but he says they were simply different lessons: “I guess the bonus is, from a young age, you get used to interacting with people.”

Heather Nelson, an assistant educator who grew up with two deaf parents and a hearing brother and grandmother, admits that language can be a barrier between her and her parents.

“Though I’m fluent in South African Sign Language, I have found that communicating with my parents has been a bit of a barrier, especially when it’s something that’s quite emotional or confusing for them to understand,” she says.

Nelson adds that sign language has its own limitations.

“If something’s overwhelming, I feel a bit exhausted trying to explain that situation to my parents because it takes more effort in using my hands and using my memory to explain everything to them.”

Despite this, Nelson is grateful for the shared interpreting responsibilities between her grandmother, brother and herself. She adds that her parents are excellent lip readers, which makes for smoother communication.

“A lot of hearing people do not know sign language, so lip reading is very beneficial between hearing and deaf cultures.”

Sign of the times

As far as progress for the deaf community is concerned, both in terms of combating stigma and overcoming ableist accessibility issues, the future seems brighter.

“It would be very beneficial for schools to integrate sign language. It would definitely open up a lot of doors and make anyone who is deaf or has a hearing impairment or even a speech impairment feel more comfortable walking into social situations.

“I feel like hearing people take things for granted – they need to be grateful for hearing and support people who cannot.”

For Caitlin, the language we use surrounding the deaf community is also important, and needs to be stripped of its ableism and stigmatising preconceptions.

“Obviously deaf people are classified as disabled… but they can do everything that a hearing person can do, just not hear,” she says. “They’re not actually limited. They might be limited in hearing, but that’s about it.”

“The awareness of deaf people is much better today than it was 30 years ago,” observes Van Niekerk, who cites demystifying some of the questions around the deaf community and CODAs as a good starting point to move forward. “They may wonder how we learnt to speak or what our parents are capable of.”

Part of the trend in growing awareness has indisputably been the success of the multiple Oscar-winning film, CODA, which focuses on 17-year-old Ruby, the only hearing member of a deaf family .

“It really brought deaf people into the spotlight, and highlighted some of the challenges that deaf people go through,” says Van Niekerk. “It is significant because it raises awareness of sign languages and how you can communicate depth without using sound.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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