The World of Emma and Her ‘No Such Thing as ‘I Can’t Do It’

Emma’s mom Sylvia and her friends advocate a much wider use of sign language at school and in life more generally

Juliana Koleva
Ема и майка ѝ Силвия
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova
03 August 2020

‘There’s no such thing as ‘I can’t do it’!’ This is a phrase six-year-old Emma often repeats, and it is this confidence and attitude to life that her mother Sylvia Bozeva considers one of her daughter’s best qualities. “Well, there are so many important things she does every day, and she has so many skills and accomplishments”, says this young woman when asked to point out what best describes her daughter and her skills. Confidence! This quality comes up again and again during our conversation, in which Sylvia talks about herself, about her little girl and about their world. “The world of the deaf”, as Sylvia describes it with gestures. This is a world which she and people who share her views, as well as Emma herself, hope will become ever easier for everyone to understand, including hearing individuals, but also for hearing parents of deaf children, and not least for the deaf themselves, some of whom, according to Sylvia, try to be like everyone else, like hearing people, pretending to be something they are not. Emma attended an ordinary kindergarten and pre-school in a group of hearing children. She will be starting school in September. She has lots of friends, many of whom can hear. She likes to play and dream; sometimes she inadvertently becomes a teacher herself and changes people’s minds and attitudes by sharing with other children what it’s like to be deaf and how they can communicate with children like her. With her characteristic confidence she explains and shows people how to sign..

UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova

Confidence! This quality comes up again and again during our conversation, in which Sylvia talks about herself, about her little girl and about their world.
“Emma said “mummy” for the first time by signing when she was just 8 months old”, Sylvia remembers with a smile. From then on, this little girl never stopped talking with her hands or learning more and more new things.

Silvia Bozeva

In order for all of this to work, however, Emma has indispensable support that not every deaf child has access to – someone to help her by translating the “hearing” world around her into sign language. Emma’s sign language interpreter is with her in pre-school and will stay with her in school too – something that Sylvia provides for her daughter herself. She says that this is the only way for deaf children to be truly integrated and have equal opportunities in society and the education system.

Many hearing individuals, including many hearing parents of deaf children, believe that hearing aids or cochlear implants can solve the problem and children can then become “like everyone else”, Sylvia says. “In fact this is neither so nor needs to be so – we can never be completely like someone who can hear, nor is this necessary; we are different and we ought to be accepted the way we are and have access to equal opportunities in education and society”, the young woman adds.

For equal opportunities to materialise, Sylvia and her friends from the Listen Up Foundation advocate a much wider use of sign language at school but also in life outside school more generally. This includes the lives of deaf individuals. Members of this organisation explain that quite a few hearing parents, upon realising that they have a deaf baby, do all they can in order to help him or her hear, including resorting to implants or rigorous testing, as well as seeking expert advice or help from doctors. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s only a small fraction of what a deaf child can and should be provided with. People can get carried away and this can slow down attaining major milestones in a child’s development.

Sylvia points out that, while they are busy making their child like “the rest”, parents sometimes neglect to teach the child words and sentences, or teach them how to connect words to reality, as well as how to reason critically and analytically. Crucially, a child starts learning from their very first day. Even at that early stage, building up brain capacity involved in reasoning and producing words and sentences is greatly facilitated by sign language.

Ема и майка ѝ Силвия общуват на жестомимичен език в парка
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova

People from the Foundation explain that the speech and words produced by children and adults with implants and hearing aids is often not up to the mark; at the same time, those people have missed the opportunity to learn sign language and this has an impact on their daily lives. Such children often miss out on years of development and start learning words only after they get an implant. However, it’s not just about learning words, but also about realising what they mean, about comprehending them, about making sense of the world around you and the way the brain works, including the links inside it, as Sylvia reminds us.

A child who starts learning words only when they are 3 or 4, for instance, doesn’t really make sense of them but rather memorises them by rote. Then, when they grow older, they come to memorise whole sentences too. That is why you can often hear ready-made cliches which are not the products of the child’s own critical thinking, Sylvia and her friends from the Listen Up Foundation point out. They believe that the main reason is that deaf children in Bulgaria are sometimes deprived of their right to have sign language, which is visual and comes naturally to them. .In this way, children fall behind at school, which becomes particularly apparent at the age of 9 or 10 and is thought to only get worse thereafter. Their less than perfect speech production, on the other hand, makes them less confident in class, thereby making it harder for them to adjust. People from the organisation also point out that the mindset instilled from early on that you need to fit in and be like everyone else, at the same time realising that this isn’t always entirely possible, also has a big impact on children, especially teenagers. As a result, children can start to shun society and look for others like them, becoming relegated to their own isolated groups. They can thus grow up with no self-confidence and with a feeling of shame. .

According to Emma’s mother, Emma’s confidence is due to the fact that she started acquiring and mastering her native sign language from the moment she was born. This is the attitude which Emma grew up with, aware that she is different, in the same way that every single child is different and has their own individual skills and abilities.

Ема, която расте уверена и владееща жестомимичният език от дете
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova

„“Emma said “mummy” for the first time by signing when she was just 8 months old”, Sylvia remembers with a smile. From then on, this little girl never stopped talking with her hands or learning more and more new things. This is because her mother, who is also deaf, started signing to her from the moment she was born. For Emma, sign language is her mother tongue. She is actually bilingual – just as she knows and learns sign language, she speaks and learns Bulgarian too. This isn’t any different from the experience of countless children born into mixed families.

Emma has many hearing friends and she has never felt ashamed when talking to them, nor has she ever tried to hide that she cannot hear, which is what other children like her might tend to do, her mother admits. Yes, she has been asked questions about her inability to hear, sometimes she has even been made fun of, but her mother has never seen her show any signs of shame. Quite the contrary, she confidently starts explaining to everyone what it’s like to be deaf; when they see a confident kid before them, the other children get on board and even try to learn a sign or two. Children have the amazing capacity to always find a way to communicate, Sylvia adds.

Силвия и Ема - майка и дъщеря се усмихват в парка, докато общуват и изпращат сърчица с ръце
UNICEF Bulgaria/2020/Yotova

In order to be able to see more of this confidence in their own abilities in many other deaf children, for several years now Sylvia and members of the deaf community have been campaigning to obtain recognition of Bulgarian Sign Language, so that it can be used at school and in society at large. For two years now, it has been accepted that it is a separate natural language with its own rules and its own grammar. It remains to pass legislation on Bulgarian Sign Language, which is due to be publicly discussed soon. It will eventually regulate the availability of sign language experts in classes with deaf children. According to Listen Up, this is vital not just at the beginning stage of education, but even more so later on. The representatives of the organisation tell us that this approach is widely adopted in many countries – ordinary schools with a slightly higher proportion of deaf children will often have a dedicated expert in the classroom whose job is to provide explanations in sign language, as well as support on any other issues, including mediation. In this way, deaf children can be meaningfully involved in education. Hopefully, after the relevant legislation is enacted and enough experts have been trained, which might take a couple of years, this will become possible in Bulgaria too.

Listen Up also highlights the need for an online platform with teaching materials, in which native speakers of sign language can explain “the world of deaf people” in all its aspects, targeting experts, including, but not only, teachers, as well as the hearing parents of deaf children.

Sylvia Bozeva concludes that this will ensure that integration is real and meaningful, not just conformity on the part of children or adjusting to the rest, but the acceptance of every single individual with their differences and unique skills and abilities.