From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

A Sign of the Times

There are many spokes on the wheel of life. We’re here to explore new possibilities.

Ray Charles

There’s a time in your life when you just know that things are going to change—that things just have to change—and you can’t stop it from happening.

In December 1996, our daughter Leah was born. My husband, Aaron, and I were elated to be blessed with such a wonderful child. Everything about her was perfect: her cute little nose, her happy wiggling feet and her amazing little hands. She was our precious, darling girl.

When Leah arrived in this world, I was writing music and performing with my folk-rock band. Aaron and I would take our little Leah to band practices and concerts, and to our amazement, she quietly slept through much of it in spite of the loud music. When she was fourteen months old we discovered why: Leah was deaf.

Instantly, my priorities changed. I just couldn’t find a way to rationalize spending hours working on my music, so I put down my guitar and picked up American Sign Language (ASL) instead.

Both Aaron and I quickly learned enough ASL to begin teaching Leah. We were astonished to see that within six months, Leah’s sign language vocabulary far surpassed the speaking vocabulary of hearing children her same age. We realized this when Leah’s little friends could only point at something they wanted, but Leah could actually tell us by signing for it. And because Leah had learned to use sign language so early, it was not long before she could read written words, even though she was only two years old.

My sister Emilie and her husband, Derek, also started teaching ASL to their hearing infant son, Alex, so he would be able to communicate with his cousin. Emilie was thrilled one morning when a very fussy Alex, then only ten months old, looked up at her and made the sign for “milk.”

A few years later, we had a second daughter. Our little Lucy was born eight weeks premature, with spina bifida and cerebral palsy. Doctors worried that, due to her cerebral palsy, Lucy would never be able to talk, let alone use her rigid fingers to communicate in ASL with her older deaf sister.

In the midst of everything that was happening to our family, Emilie and I came up with the idea to create a video for hearing children that would be captivating and entertaining and would make sign language fun and easy for all children. If anything, the video would also teach our friends, family and neighbors how to communicate with Leah. We formed our company, Two Little Hands Productions, to produce and distribute our videos, and Signing Time! Volume One: My First Signs was completed in May 2002.

Well, after two years of no communication, Lucy began to sign along with Signing Time! in spite of her cerebral palsy. It wasn’t long before she also started talking—in fact, she’s still talking and signing to this day, and we can’t get her to stop! She now goes to a mainstream elementary school, which blows me away. Lucy was the first of thousands of Signing Time! miracles.

The timing for our idea couldn’t be more perfect. There has been an incredible amount of media attention focusing on how infants and toddlers communicate with signs before they can speak. Documented research, as well as firsthand experience of many parents, demonstrates that signing hearing children generally have higher IQ scores, are better adjusted and read at an earlier age. By learning to communicate earlier, the “terrible twos” are not so terrible. And, with millions of deaf or hearing-impaired Americans using ASL as their native language, communication through signing has become an important part of American culture.

While sign language can be beneficial for every child, I confess a more personal goal: my hope is that everyone will know a little sign language, just as most people know a little Spanish. If this dream could happen, when my child plays with other children at the park, there would be no awkwardness, no communication barrier, just three signs: “Hi—friend—play.” This is all it would take to change her world.

After all those years of musical silence while helping my daughter learn to adapt to the world around her, I’m happy to say that I’ve picked up my guitar again, writing and performing all the songs for the entire Signing Time! series. I used to sing for myself and my fans, but now I sing and sign for Leah, Lucy and children everywhere.

Rachel de Azevedo Coleman

EPILOGUE: When Rachel Coleman and her sister Emilie Brown came up with the idea to make a fun, musical video to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to Leah’s hearing family members and friends, they had no idea the scope and reach their “little project” would have.

When their first video became available for purchase in 2002 via a simple Web site, its popularity spread like wildfire through all fifty states and twenty different countries. Almost entirely by word of mouth, the video excited many, including educators, homeschoolers, speech therapists, pediatricians, daycares, providers, schools, librarians and families. By the end of 2005, the Signing Time! series had grown to nine ASL vocabulary-building volumes, sing-along music CDs, board books and even a spin-off two-volume series just for infants called Baby Signing Time! In addition to even more volumes and products planned for release in 2006, Signing Time! is the first program of its kind to appear on public television stations across the United States beginning in January 2006.

The message is clear: Signing Time! is for all children and all families. Though its popularity has certainly grown among families with “typical” children, according to Coleman, the most touching testimonials have come from families of “exceptional” children such as those with Down syndrome, autism, speech delays and other developmental challenges. As was the case with Coleman’s second daughter, Lucy, Signing Time! has been instrumental in making the miracle of two-way communication possible for many of these children.

To learn more about Rachel Coleman, Emilie Brown and Signing Time! please visit their Web site at www.signingtime.com.

Dahlynn McKowen

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