What It's Like to Grow Up with Deaf Parents

Children of deaf adults straddle the complex cultural plain between the deaf world and the hearing world.
Lucy Han 

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia. Peter Bonser was just 11 years old when his three-month-old brother died. Because his parents couldn't digest the verbal language of the hospital doctors, he had to explain the details of the situation to them.

"I interpreted all the funeral arrangements for my mom and dad," he says, referring to AUSLAN, the language of deaf Australians. "My grandmother would say to me, 'Can you explain this to them? Because you do it better than I can.' She came to sign language late, but I'd had it since day one." As a CODA, an acronym for the "Children of Deaf Adults," Bonser straddles the complex cultural plain between the deaf world and the hearing. The official term is given to children who can hear normally themselves but have one or two deaf parents. The complexity of this dynamic extends beyond communication: There have been High Court cases citing discrimination against the deaf community, and the assumption that deaf people aren't capable of being good parents is unfortunately common. The role of CODA also comes with weighty responsibilities. Many CODAs act as interpreters for their parents from a young age, and this can mean taking on responsibilities generally reserved for adults. Bonser, who is the founder of CODA Australia, says organizing the memorial of his late brother was a significant experience. But it was also nothing unusual in the realm of the deaf, he says, where such translations are common. In fact, something similar happened to him less than a year later. "My mom was pregnant, but she hemorrhaged," he says. "She had to be taken to a hospital in an ambulance, and the baby had to be aborted. I was 12, and again here I am, calling an ambulance, going in the ambulance with her to the hospital, interpreting all the stuff to her about the baby being aborted, and watching blood transfusions." On the other hand, and despite the public sector's lack of attention, Bonser says being a CODA has imparted him with a path to nuanced communication. Although he and his wife—whose parents were also deaf—can hear, they throw signs into their personal conversations anyway. "In sign language, there are ways you can express or say things that seem better or more appropriate [in sign than] in English," Bonser explains. "We sometimes sign something because it really captures what we're thinking."


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Evie Mahoney is an author and CODA, and says her hearing was seen by her family as a prized skill. "As long as my parents needed to tell somebody something, I would do it for them," she says. Mahoney is the eldest of six siblings, and as a young girl acted as the primary interpreter. Her role was fluid—she would translate simple exchanges, like conversations, then manage more dynamic issues, like her family's bills. "When I was nine years old, my mom and I would go down to the phone box, and we'd call, say, the electricity board, and tell them something important with the account," she says. But often, the content was too complex: She wouldn't know what follow-up questions to ask, or who to direct them to. Sometimes, when Mahoney eventually hung up the phone, she felt defeated. "It didn't teach me confidence. My mom would always ask me, 'Did you tell them XYZ?' and I would say, 'No, I didn't know I had to.' I always felt like I had let her down."

The failure of institutional bodies to properly allocate resources to CODAs and their families can have a huge psychological impact. Brent Phillips, a deaf father of two hearing children and director at VicDeaf Australia, says there are organizations like his that do offer resources and programs for CODA families. However, "there is much more that needs to be done to raise awareness about parenting and bringing up children in a bilingual environment, and maximizing success, and participation in society.

"Attention needs to be paid to the 95 percent of deaf children born to hearing parents," he continues, "and ensuring those parents are in a position to make informed decisions around communication, medical, and cultural interventions." Ultimately, Phillips adds, "It is not a question of deaf or hearing—it is a situation where a loving, tight-knit family uses a beautiful, visual language to communicate and bond with each other."
Still, some CODAs find the first few years of school tumultuous due to linguistic limitations. Although some CODAs may appear to be less developed compared their hearing counterparts, it's because they haven't been surrounded by the spoken language. Some teachers mistakenly interpret this as lessened intellectual capabilities. Jayde Perry, the representative for CODA International, says that she could speak AUSLAN [Australian sign language] from the age of two, but her teachers assumed her lack of English was a learning disability. "Although I understood what was going on, my teachers thought there were some intelligence concerns, when really, there wasn't anything wrong with my intellect," she says. "It was just the fact that I couldn't say it in [their] language." Most CODAs will catch up by the time they've reached adulthood through speech therapy. But the resources are limited, says Perry, who believes there should be more assistance programs to help professionals in educational capacities understand CODAs. "I know a lot of people, like child psychologists and pediatricians, who [still] need to understand deafness as a community, and understand that CODAs are a part of it," she says. Exactly how many CODAs exist is the "million dollar question," Perry says. The number of deaf people as a whole is extremely hard to gauge, for a start—the current estimate in Australia is that one in six Australians has significant hearing issues. She says most deaf people have hearing children, and 95 percent of deaf babies are born to hearing parents, which leaves only a small percentage of deaf people who go on to have deaf children. Therefore, the majority of the children of deaf people will be CODAs. "The exact number, who knows…" she says. "I don't think we'll ever know."

*Evie Mahoney has written about her experience as a CODA in a memoir. The title comes from a question her father asked her when she was little: What Does the Sea Sound Like?*