Ella was born in 1999 and was diagnosed as having CHARGE Association, a rare condition that affects the ears, eyes, nasal passages, heart and other things like growth and development.
At 9 months’ old, Ella needed a tracheostomy. A ‘trachy’ is a breathing tube situated just below the vocal chords and from the minute it was in situ, she was unable to make a single sound.
A few weeks after we got home, her SLT came to visit. She suggested that we start signing using Makaton. I had no idea what she meant – I had only seen those people on telly doing signing for Deaf people. I had never heard of it used in any other way. There was no ‘craze’ for baby signing then and certainly no Mr Tumble!
As Ella was fed via gastrostomy – we started with motivating, non-food related vocabulary e.g. lots of bubbles, matching animal games and posting little toys into a box. At the time I thought the trachy was only going to be in for a few months, so it was all a bit of fun to pass the time. When she was just over 1, the doctors gave us further devastating news – the trachy was going to stay in indefinitely. My signing went into overdrive – if Ella wasn’t going to be able to speak, then this was serious. Soon I was drawing up lists of what signs to introduce, what signs she could do and what signs I still didn’t know myself.
Ella did her first sign by 12 months – and by 18 months she had over 80 signs and was putting together little phrases like “where’s daddy?” “go home”, “baby go bed” (she didn’t like the sound of her sister crying!!). I went on a Makaton Beginners’ Workshop, bought Makaton resources and then plundered ‘Animals, Transport and Vehicles’ so that I could find signs for all the animals and creatures we needed. By 2 years’ old I had lost count as she had several hundred signs.
But the signing was more than just about Ella learning how objects have a name. Signing gave me an insight into Ella’s world – her thoughts, her needs, her wants. Without the signing, our interaction would have been one way i.e. me telling her everything. Equipping Ella with the ability to sign allowed her to develop her own expressive language while also developing her receptive language too. It helped me see past the trachy to the little girl who wanted to tell me something interesting. I so clearly remember the day when she woke up and signed ‘want book’, and I went to the book shelf and signed back ‘which book’ and she replied ‘red bus book’. A proper conversation!
At 3 years’ old, Ella went to hospital to get her trachy removed. As part of the procedure, the doctors put in a smaller tube to see if the child can breathe with the tube blocked off. Some minutes later, we were walking down the corridor – she stopped her rolater – leaned on it for balance, then uttered (and signed)...”mummy it’s difficult to breathe”. She signed the 3 key words mummy, difficult, breathe but spoke ALL of the words, having never spoken before. All that receptive language had been going in, just waiting there for a chance to come out. It was incredible. Oh and she hasn’t stopped talking ever since!
As a consequence, Ella and her friend Miles have been the inspiration for setting up Singing Hands. We know from first-hand experience what Makaton signing has done for our families. We have therefore been so lucky to be able to collaborate with Makaton to create resources to help other families like ours to communicate with each other from the earliest possible age. Happy signing!