Updated: Jul 6
We all want to give our children the best start in life. Reading to your child is one way to foster growth, connection, and learning. Children of every age—and every ability level—need access to good books and adults who will read with them.
Deaf children are no different. When you have a deaf child, though, you may also want to consider picture books that expose them to Deaf life and culture. Inclusion and representation of deafness are important for many reasons. Read on to learn why. I also give recommendations for books to get you started!
Reason #1: Validation
All humans have the need to feel understood and accepted, regardless of their unique differences. I remember when Ana from Brazil joined our school in fifth grade. She didn’t know any English. She arrived with a different language and culture. We embraced her, teaching her our language and cultural norms; however, Ana was not able to share her language or culture. This has been common practice in oralist programs as well, which discourage signing in attempts to force an individual to speak.
Creating a culture of inclusion for children should start with creating a safe space for them to have conversations about diversity. Inclusive and diverse picture books afford a wonderful opportunity to start a conversation. Second-grade teacher Penny Samp said, “I read it [My Monster Truck Goes Everywhere with Me] to my second-grade class, and they were so engaged. This story is unique and unlike any other book that I have read. It led to some great discussions about children with hearing loss and people who are deaf and how they use sign language to communicate. My second graders were so full of wonder and asked so many questions.”
Isaac Liang, the illustrator for My Monster Truck Goes Everywhere with Me, said, “When a deaf child sees pictures illustrated in sign language, their eyes will light up.” This is validation at its finest.
In some ways, asking why inclusion is important is a sign of privilege—if you haven’t had to think about it before, it may be a new concept. Ableism—the devaluing or discrimination of those with disabilities—is entangled in our society. Even well-meaning people may not be aware of the ways our culture caters to hearing people, for example. (There are certainly many other ways ableism manifests, but I am only focusing on the Deaf experience in this article.)
Luckily, many companies, schools, and media sources are becoming more aware of the need for inclusion of all kinds. Some of the current conversations have been fueled by the movement for racial social justice, but this is just one facet of the issue. Not only do books about deafness help your child feel validated, but they also often support Deaf authors and illustrators, who often (but not always) are the creators behind these books.
Reason #2: Social Development
Being deaf poses physical and medical challenges, but it can also affect a child socially.
In Isabel Brittain’s 2004 paper, “An Examination into the Portrayal of Deaf Characters and Deaf Issues in Picture Books for Children,” Brittain explains that children between the ages of two and six are at a stage where they interact with books in a play-like way. Children at this age role-play with the book’s characters in their minds in the same way they might role-play as a doctor or a mommy or daddy with their toys. This role-play is essential for the development of empathy and identity.
As your child is building their worldview, it’s important to communicate their differences with them. Help them make sense of their Deaf identity. Chances are, they will be confronted—often—with the idea that they are different from their hearing peers. Instead of letting this shape their identity, take the steps you can as a caregiver to help them feel less alone and start seeing themselves in the role of someone confident and capable. This will nurture the way children think of themselves and relate to others.
I often say that every child has a gift, and our job as parents and educators is to help children discover their gifts. Representation in books can help a child see their experience as something unique and beautiful, rather than a defect or deficiency. Deafness can be viewed as simply another way of being, rather than something less-than.
Maddie Hinkle is an advocate whose master’s thesis focused on positive representational literature in picture books aimed at young Deaf audiences. She now works at the Chicago Hearing Society. Maddie said the following:
“The literature we expose our children to has an impact on their understanding of the world around them. It is our job as parents, educators, and professionals to make sure our children are seeing themselves represented in the books they read.
In terms of Deaf representation, it is important to know that there are many different ways to be Deaf. Representational literature drastically improves by acknowledging and accepting the diversity of the Deaf community, allowing more children to see themselves as part of a larger whole, regardless of their particular communication mode, hearing technology, school setting, etc. This extends to intersectional identities as well; when representing Deaf characters, keep in mind the variety and diversity within that community.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to be prioritizing Deaf perspectives as much as possible as we read, publish, and discuss representation.”
There’s a whole world out there waiting for your deaf child to enter—the sooner you share this world with your child, the better. Picture books are an excellent way to dip a toe into the Deaf community’s world.
Reason #3: An Open Mind about Themselves and Others
By now, you know how helpful deaf-inclusive books can be for deaf children. I think showing these books to hearing children can be helpful, too—but in different ways. Special Olympics asserts that inclusion can help with acceptance and reduce bullying.
Picture books can be a great way to introduce concepts like deafness to children of all hearing levels. Hearing children may be interested to learn about hearing devices, famous or historical figures like Marlee Matlin and Thomas H. Gallaudet.
Additionally, many picture books showcase American Sign Language (ASL). This can be an incredible opportunity to teach your hearing child to sign! Sign language is a limitless resource with many benefits for our brains. A study called “Teaching sign language to hearing children as a possible factor in cognitive enhancement” showed that children performed better on spatial memory tests after learning sign language. Other studies have shown that learning sign language can activate areas of the brain associated with visual perception, reasoning, and visual-spatial comprehension. I wrote more about this in my blog post, “Brains are Better with Sign Language” (2022).
ASL is an untapped resource with limitless potential not yet imagined. It's my hope to see d/Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing and hearing students working together in schools that accommodate all needs. The use of sign language and hearing technologies could be beneficial for everyone. I am hopeful that representation and education will help make our world more accessible for students with hearing and communication differences. Making a difference starts when they are young—sometimes even at home on the couch with a good book.
How to Get Started
In her presentation “Representation Matters,” Maddie Hinkle discussed several categories for deaf-inclusive picture books. The presentation is password-protected, but here are the categories and a few books from each section:
My book, My Monster Truck Goes Everywhere with Me, was included in this category.
These books may introduce your child to some of the practical aspects of deafness, ASL, or hearing devices. Titles include Using Hearing Aids, My Life with Deafness, Nita’s First Signs, and All the Ways I Hear You.
Consider including stories from each category in your child’s library to give a well-rounded exposure. ASL Picture Books has set up an Bookshop affiliate account with most of the books listed by Maddie Hinkle.
Bookshop.org works to connect readers with independent booksellers all over the world. More than $26 million raised for local bookstores! Bookshop believes local bookstores are essential community hubs that foster culture, curiosity and a love of reading. We agree!
If you’re looking for more book ideas, I’ve shared some of my favorites here on our Resource page!
Wordless picture books are another way to get your child involved in a story without the need for spoken words. I wouldn’t suggest these as a replacement for inclusive picture books—but it’s best to include all kinds of different stories in your repertoire.
It can be wise to read through a book on your own first before introducing it to your child. Although there are many books showcasing the Deaf world, not all of them paint deafness in the best light. Be wary of any stories that portray deafness as something to be overcome. You’ll also want to steer clear of stories that compare a Deaf person unfavorably to non-human creatures, such as vegetables or animals (Brittain 2004). Use your best judgment.
Reading books to children is a special and interactive activity all its own. However, you may want to consider this list of free videos—this directory contains a huge list of stories that are available (for free) with ASL retellings. Again, I don’t suggest replacing reading time, but these videos may be helpful for some.
There are many fun books and resources out there for your deaf or hard-of-hearing child. I wish you happy reading! You have the incredible opportunity to shape your child’s worldview, talk about important topics, and build lifelong memories.
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