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Communication: Rachel Coleman Makes Learning Sign Language Easy and Fun

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Communication—You know how they say you're not supposed to help a baby chick hatching out of its shell because that exercise is critical to its growth? You know how sometimes its good to help new moms out, but ultimately you have to let them figure out what works best for them and their baby, that being critical to their growth? And you know how life often hands us trials we don't expect, and often it's in the figuring out of those trials that we develop previously-unknown strengths and see beautiful facets of life we would have otherwise never known? Rachel Coleman is one of those diamonds, a woman who has taken the trials that come with having two disabled children and turned them into ways to reflect light back out into the universe.

Maybe the Chinese proverb that says "a gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials" is cliche, but it shines so true  in Rachel's case. Fifteen years ago, she was living a normal life as a wife, songwriter, and folk rock band member, and mother to a newborn baby. Baby Leah slept remarkably well through their rehearsals and performances, and when she was 14 months old, they discovered that the reason why was that she was profoundly deaf.

"To say the least," says Rachel, "[our] world turned upside down. [My] priorities instantly changed: [I] put down [my] guitar and picked up sign language. [My] husband [and I] immediately started teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to Leah as fast as [we] could learn it." And to great success, since Leah was a fast learner. Their adoption of ASL turned out to be fortuitous when their second daughter Lucy was born prematurely a few years later with spina bifida and cerebral palsy. Doctors feared she would never be able to communicate at all, through speech or ASL.

At that time, Rachel and her sister Emilie decided to create a video to teach sign language to hearing children as a means of giving their friends and family a fun an easy way to learn a second language and communicate with Leah. Released in 2002, it was called Signing Time, and it starred Rachel, 5-year-old Leah, and her cousin Alex. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and has grown greatly since then.

One of the most unexpected but important benefits of Rachel's SigningTime videos was that, after two years of no communication, Lucy began to sign along with them, despite rigid fingers and other physical challenges. Shortly thereafter, Lucy started talking. At age five, Lucy began attending mainstream kindergarten, something neither Rachel nor their doctors ever imagined possible.

Rachel, after having her life turned upside down, reassembled it into a site that is a great resource not only to friends and family of deaf children, but to those of children with spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and Down Syndrome. Her blog,, and her words are a source of strength through example. So often, life throws us curveballs. Sometimes the shock of them is so strong, we're knocked to our knees for a while. When it happens, it's not easy to get back up. But it is in the getting back up, in the breaking out of that shell, that is the beauty. You can do it too, no matter how bad the trial. You don't have to be strong enough to move mountains by yourself; you just need to feel, as Rachel puts it, "strong enough to be."

What recents events have knocked you to your knees? How are you overcoming the challenges? What has helped you to look on the bright side?


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