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Adoption of an Older deaf/HOH Child… Part 11

This blog-post, 11th in the ongoing series, “So You Want to Adopt a Deaf Child?”, is written specifically for those hearing parents who are contemplating the adoption of an older deaf/HOH child who is already using sign language as their mode of communication and for agencies that are “advocating” for their adoption.

To be linked with the other posts in the series, start here.

Don't Do It!

A heart-wrenching plea with a precious picture or video-link comes across your email or through a group feed.


It’s a boy or girl, age 12 or 13, and they are deaf/HOH.  They attend a school for the Deaf, which focuses on sign language, not oral communication (speaking, lip-reading).

You know a little bit of sign language because when you were a teenager you learned it at church to sign with a song.  No one else in your family knows any sign language…but they could learn. Your thinking, “Maybe, our family is God’s answer for this Deaf child about to “age-out”. I have always loved sign language and always wanted to learn it. Maybe this is why God gave me a love for sign language.”



First of all, when adopting an older child, deaf or hearing, you must be realistic about the challenges your entire family will face simply because they are “older”.

Before I move on to specifics concerning the adoption of an older deaf/HOH child who is already sign language fluently, allow me to deviate from my topic, for a bit. 

Trauma is no respecter of age.  A 6-month-old child, abandoned to institutionalized care for any length of time will have “trauma” to deal with.  The adoption of a “young” child is no guarantee of a “happily-ever-after story”.  The trauma-brain (a brain that is impacted by trauma, even in utero/pregnancy) is one that will need the right amount of structure and nurture to overcome the negative effects that trauma has caused on the brains’ development.  I’m not talking about the ability of the brain to be educated, however, that is also impacted, but I am talking about the inability a trauma-brain child has to think logically and therefore is evidenced in defiant behaviors of many kinds.  Truly, the trauma-brain is the brain that is controlled by…fear. Fight. Flight. Freeze.

Now, allow me to mention some additional challenges that often come with adopting an older child that are often never considered. The most obvious is the physical “size” of the older adopted child. With “older” comes bigger and stronger, physically.  Restraint becomes more challenging.  Tantrums and meltdowns are bigger and bad-er.  Violence and/or destruction of property is more damaging. The expectations placed on an older child are greater, even though their trauma-brain holds them captive emotionally, socially, and often academically, to half their chronological age and often younger. This means the adopted 8 or 9-year-old child will only be functioning emotionally, socially, and with every other behavior at a 4.5-year-old age-level or below.

That is hard to comprehend, especially when they live in an 8 or 9-year-old body and that is what is “seen”. What cannot be seen is the brain that has been stunted in its growth, since even before birth. Self-preservation has become “their job” from a very young age, therefore manipulation has become their greatest skill. This is not proof they are simply being defiant, but it is proof their trauma-brains need great care to begin to grow beyond that of manipulation for self-preservation to one of trust and felt-safety.

In addition, their experience of the world is locked in infancy.  They have no idea what danger, in the outside world, is and do not instinctively know when they are in danger.  They do not know if they run into the street they could be killed by an oncoming car nor do they know fire can burn them.  Unless that was an abuse they endured.  No explanation is adequate for them to comprehend these dangers.  These must be taught, in the same way as they are taught to toddlers.  Sometimes they are learned better by natural consequences. These children have had no one to teach them these things and many have rarely been outside their orphanage or school. This seems to be even more common for deaf children, with limited to no language, as they are often held out of school and events because their behavior is so unpredictable without the ability to communicate basic needs. Imagine trying to force a 8 or 9-year-old to hold your hand for safety, when everything in them resists.

Why would anyone, in their right-mind, adopt an older child?  Because God calls them to do so. Yes, much preparation and training is needed in advance, and the resources for doing that are much greater today than ever before.  God equips those He calls, but commitment to receiving and perseverance for that equipping is vital.

Trust-based Relational Interventions (TBRI) works miracles with children from the “hard places”, but simply reading a book, like The Connected Child and trying only a few of these tools, briefly, will not produce lasting impact.  The outcomes parents desire to attain, brought about by a heart change accessed by a brain that feels safe, will require them to be mindful of their own behaviors and why they behave the way they do. Recognizing their own need for a heart change will grant parents the ability to begin to meet the great needs of their child(ren), adopted and biological.  AND it will require a paradigm shift in parents’ old way of thinking relating to raising a child, which most often employs behavior modification, a system designed to control behaviors based on rewards and punishments.  However, reaching a child’s heart is based on a relationship built on mutual trust in an environment of balanced structure and nurture that produces a heart that desires to behave, not one that is forced. The National Center for Biblical Parenting offers a vast library of resources for families desiring to utilize the relational-approach to parenting, one designed by God.

Back to the topic of this blog-post.

For the older Deaf child, if you are not already ASL-fluent and immersed in the Deaf community, with an acceptable Deaf school nearby (which also provides a broader base for a larger Deaf community in your area), please do not even consider adopting an older Deaf child who is sign language fluent.  This, almost assuredly, is a recipe for disaster for everyone.

So, what hope do older Deaf children who are already fluent in sign language have?

They have you!  Your willingness to advocate for them to grant them the great opportunity to be adopted by a family who is already ASL-fluent and possibly even better…to be adopted by a Deaf dad and mom who can often identify with them far better than a hearing mom and dad ever will.

I suspect the percentage of deaf children who are adopted by Deaf parents is less than 15%, maybe less than 10%.  Why is that?  While we want to believe we have surpassed the stigma deafness brings with it, many hearing people mistakenly believe the Deaf are ill-equipped to parent a child, adequately.  In addition, many Deaf couples have stories of being rejected by adoption agencies, simply because they are unwilling to devote the extra time and money to provide adequate communication for them for home studies, meetings and pre-adoption training via ASL. Misunderstandings of the cultural differences between the hearing agency personnel and the Deaf parents, unfortunately, are also the reason for rejections, as well.  These stories of rejection, permeate the Deaf Community.  And finally, the cost of adoption for the Deaf population, which is underpaid and under-employed has long been an insurmountable obstacle felt by many.

Will you advocate for qualified Deaf parents to be given the great opportunity to adopt deaf children?

Sign language fluency can come within a few years of daily exposure, for Deaf children immersed in the language. That means an 8 or 9-yr old who has been attending a school for the Deaf, that utilizes sign language–not all of them do–for roughly two years, is quite possibly already fluent or well on their way.  In addition, they have now been exposed to the Deaf community which is vastly different from their indigenous hearing community and certainly from the American hearing community.

Deeper aspects of the culture of Deaf people will be shared in future posts.

Why is it a deaf child can often become sign language fluent in such a short amount of time, as compared to a hearing person?

Deaf children who have been waiting for years to be given the opportunity to begin to communicate with those around them, God has wired our brains to crave communication, often become sponges when their world is turned upside down with language…visual language.  Finally, something they can visually understand without the need to hear or speak.

Us hearing folks…well, we can hear and that supersedes our “need” to communicate via sign language. Ultimately, the “need” for the deaf child to learn sign language, their first language, is far greater than the need for you and me, hearing folks, to learn a 2nd language that does not enter our brains via the ears. Let’s face it, you and I respond to noise automatically and instantly, that is natural for us.  For those who live with deafness, they respond automatically and instantly, to what they see, that is natural for them.

If you or your adoption agency do not know what the Deaf child, you are considering for adoption, is currently receiving at their deaf school, find out.  Deaf schools in China and in Eastern Europe often never use sign language and only focus on teaching deaf children to speak and read lips.  Other countries are not so focused. For some deaf children who are learning a sign language, some SWI’s (Social Welfare Institutions), in China, think it will be better if they tell you the deaf child is learning to speak, when in fact they do use sign language to communicate.  Their thinking…a family will be more likely to adopt them if they can “speak”.  It’s the age-old myth that if a Deaf child can “speak” then they are not mentally deficient and will be more adoptable. Other times, the Deaf child does use sign language for their mode of communication and that is vitally important to know, to know how to best advocate for them and their needs.

Deaf children cannot speak because they cannot hear the sounds to learn to speak, not because their brains cannot function at a certain level. Albeit, there are those deaf children who do have additional challenges, in addition to their deafness, but deafness, alone, is not an indication of being mentally challenged. Language deprived deaf children, however, will have additional challenges to overcome, mentally, socially, emotionally and academically. Check out Part 5, in this ongoing series, “Why Is The Deaf Child So Far Behind?

Non-ASL-fluent families who do adopt older Deaf children who are already sign language fluent and adoption agencies who allow them to do this are sewing seeds for consequences they will not want the responsibility to bear. Disruption/dissolution is not uncommon and the collateral damage on all involved is great.

Remember those who are deaf/HOH often cannot learn to speak a spoken language clearly enough, simply because they cannot hear adequately enough for their brain to allow them to learn spoken language accurately.  This is not an option for them.  On the other hand, every hearing person, on this planet, can learn sign language, IF they are willing.  Yes, it takes time and commitment but they CAN learn it.  It IS an option, for them.  It is not a question of are the deaf willing to learn, but one of “can” they learn since they cannot hear adequately?  Some can and do learn to speak fairly plainly, but most cannot, even with hearing aids and/or Cochlear Implants.

It is not deafness that separates the hearing from the deaf, it is the inability to speak clearly that separates them from us.  We cannot “see” their deafness, but we can “see” abnormal speech and because we are naturally hearing…that “screams” at us. Adequate speech for speaking, for the d/Deaf person, does not mean there is adequate hearing in every situation of life to allow for smooth communication in speech.

If you are told by your adoption agency or any others for that matter, the Cochlear Implant will easily make your deaf child hearing and “normal” in every way, be wary.  That is just not true.  Do your own research.  The Cochlear Implant is covered more in-depth, in Part 6, The Adopted Deaf Child and the Cochlear Implant.

I hear stories all too often and so do others, of eager hearing families who will “rescue” their Deaf son or daughter from their peril, before it’s too late.  Too often, when hearing parents, maybe well prepared for raising a child from the “hard places”, but who are clueless about the Deaf culture and know too little sign language, bring their son/daughter home…all hell breaks loose and hearing family members are shell-shocked. “How could this happen?” Or the Deaf child withdraws, which in the end can be even worse than those who are openly violent.

This is not just because this is an older child adoption, while that will certainly be a significant part of it, add to that the Deaf child’s frustration with the inability to communicate in the same mode of communication as they have known and loved…a manual (on the hands and body) language, not dependent on the ability to hear.

There are those who recommend the use of “translation technology” when adopting children who are post-lingual (those who have already learned spoken language) from another culture where English is not used, especially in those first crucial weeks. This is used as a “bridge” for a short time, to help the transition be a little less stressful for the adopted child. Be aware this technology is far from perfect and many misunderstandings are experienced.

Translation technology has also been used to facilitate communication between hearing parents who do not know sign and their deaf children who do know some written Mandarin or other written language.  Deaf children who are fluent in sign are often taught to read and write in Mandarin, as well.  While there are benefits to this kind of communication in the first few weeks and maybe months, relying on this for a prolonged time is not recommended. This in no way will provide a strong foundation between hearing family members and their deaf son/daughter.  We all know how technology has restricted and negatively impacted the next generation in their ability to develop strong social relationships with one another.  One can only imagine how limiting this mode of unnatural communication will negatively impact a recently adopted sign language fluent Deaf child if it is allowed to continue beyond a few weeks or maybe a few months.  I do not believe you and I can begin to imagine the disappointment and frustration an adopted Deaf child, fluent in sign, would experience when their adoptive hearing parents and family members are unwilling to learn to communicate with them face-to-face directly in sign.

The adoption of an older child, brings with it more than enough trauma for a lifetime.  Add to that the inability to identify and bond with parents through a shared language utilizing the same mode of communication…either spoken language for hearing children or manual language for Deaf children. That has been labeled by some, as…child abuse.

Then, there is another deeper issue to be addressed here, as well.  That is one of culture. Once deaf children have learned a signed language, they will naturally be drawn to those who can communicate with them easily and can identify with them deeply…those just like them.  This is often hard for hearing family members to understand and to accept, especially when they themselves have not become fluent in ASL.  Many hearing family members will live in denial of this fact and when reality sets in are heartbroken by their Deaf children’s allegiance to and desire to spend most of their time with those who “know” them best.  As stated above, future posts will share more details surrounding the Deaf culture, which is vastly different from the counter, hearing culture.

Another thing to keep in mind.  If you are not already ASL-fluent when you bring your deaf son or daughter home, be aware it will take as long as 6 years, maybe longer, for you to become fluent. And that requires spending much time devoted to doing so on a weekly basis and not just from a book or classroom but interacting WITH the Deaf community, regularly.  My definition of ASL-fluent…you are comfortable carrying on an in-depth conversation with every native Deaf signer you encounter, one-on-one.  For me, that was about 6 years and this included constant classroom participation with Deaf teachers and multiple days a week interacting with the Deaf in my community.

One thing to keep in mind, IF you adopt a 12 or 13-year-old they turn 18 in just 5 or 6 short years.

To gain a better perspective, try to envision what it might be like for a hearing child, age 5 – 6 yrs. old or older, already fluent in his/her native spoken language, to be adopted by an all Deaf and fully signing family, with extended family members who are also Deaf and sign, and from another country/culture.  This hearing child, fluent in spoken language, would have little to no exposure to those who speak a language.  Wait a minute!  Would an all Deaf family be granted the ability to even adopt a hearing child who is fluent in spoken language?  Some would say…that’s child abuse.

While this is not a perfect comparison it does help us gain perspective.  The great advantage of a signed language, as opposed to spoken, is its visual qualities that can lend itself to providing comprehension/communication without a single spoken word.

This video shows how the lives of deaf children can look when they are impacted by sign language at an early age.  Sadly, most deaf children, here in America, and around the world never receive this kind of vital input, as less than 10% of hearing parents ever learn to sign with them.

2 Responses

  1. I am a hearing parent of a deaf adopted child. Yes, we were probably a bit naive. He was not that old at adoption (4) but the adoption process took longer than expected and so did the process to get a cochlear implant. We ha attempted to have the family learn ASL, even more since realizing English would take very long for him but sign was much more rapid (and ditching the experts who said not to sign with him). We are still not fluent nor consistent in ASL or SEE though. Our community has very little I have found in the way of ASL support or resources. We homeschool, and the nearest deaf school is too far away. Any suggestions as to help/resources?

  2. Dawn, thanks for commenting. Your story is very similar to many, challenging in many ways. We have a group of moms working hard to create a virtual ASL classroom for homeschool for their adopted Deaf children. Email me beckyblloyd@gmail.com or connect with me on FaceBook, Becky Brooks Lloyd or Signs for Hope and I will connect you to those involved in creating this unique way of educating adopted Deaf children.