The Deaf Child Sign:
Does it Work?
By Sara Kennedy, Colorado Families for Hands & Voices
You've seen those yellow signs scattered in your own city—perhaps on your own street announcing that your deaf child lives nearby. Parents often advocate for the cautionary sign when a child is a tiny being, not yet imagining the day when an older child has his or her own opinions about such a sign. Hands & Voices is often asked about this topic, so we sought reliable information and feedback from parents across North America to learn more.
Parents of older children may be surprised to learn that not all transportation/traffic agencies will put the signs up in today’s world. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) publishes The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which specifies which signs and by what standards traffic signs, road surface markings and signals are designed, installed and used. The manual included a change in their policies for warning signs such as the deaf child sign, “slow, children playing” and similar warnings in the 2003 revision and again in late 2009: “The use of warning signs should be kept to a minimum as the unnecessary use of warning signs tends to breed disrespect for all signs.” The MUTCD is used by state and local agencies as well as private construction firms to ensure that the traffic control devices they use conform to the national standard.
Policy at the FHWA noting the ineffectiveness of the deaf child sign appears to be based on studies of various other warning signs. When contacted, the FHWA was unable to cite the actual studies. While the FHWA, the Department of Transportation, and the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE) all discourage the use of the deaf child area and similar warning signs, not one of them cites specific research demonstrating that these signs are ineffective, and one source, the ITE Design and Safety of Pedestrian Facilities, implies that no such studies exist, stating that “No accident-based studies have been able to determine the effectiveness of warning signs.” One mention of a 1990 study of flashing “slow” warning lights did find that the lighted signs were not effective in reducing vehicle speed or accidents in four Phoenix school crossing areas. (Sparks and Cynecki, ITE Journal, 1990.) Lurking on the public message boards at the FHWA, the traffic and sign engineers themselves speak to some uneasiness about the lack of studies, though they seem to agree that the signs are, at best, only temporarily effective. One posting from an anonymous traffic engineer states: “I just don't think it reflects well on our profession when we cite "studies" but then can't actually produce said studies. Instead, we should just own up that it is simply our professional opinion that the signs are ineffective rather than claiming a false authority that doesn't exist. Personally, I would like to have a statistically valid study (or studies) to support my opinion that the signs are worthless. The times when you could just say ‘trust me, I'm a professional’ are gone…”
Anecdotal complaints against the yellow signs abound: they do not slow traffic, go virtually unnoticed by drivers, put children at risk for predators, give parents and children a false sense of security, are a waste of taxpayer funds and invade a child’s privacy. Local governments can continue to put up signs despite the policy of the FHWA if they so choose. Fort Collins, Colorado and Wichita, Kansas have brochures and memos stating that they will not. Fort Collins’ memo goes as far as to state “It has been proven that Deaf Child signs do not increase traffic safety or reduce speeds in any way.” As noted, Fort Collins cannot point to the source of this claim. Some locales charge families for the signs, such as the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Parents will get some obnoxious responses from some offices, such as “It’s not like the driver will know which child is deaf, anyway.” Obviously, it’s not okay to hit hearing children, either.
On the FHWA website discussions and across the table from your local county official, the reasoning for denying the signs is this: the deaf child signs don't work because they don't tell drivers clearly what to do, and they can't protect a child, as well as perhaps giving drivers the false idea that streets without signs like “Children at Play” have no children living there. As Michelle Martin, a mom of a child who has a hearing loss, said in her article in the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario May 2010, signs will not help some drivers recognize the difference between a motor vehicle and a pedestrian, whether high schoolers wear a sign that says “Warning: Ipod Wearing Teenager” or not.
What do parents say?
Anne Hender-Jasper paid to have the signs installed for her daughter who is Deaf. Her daughter, now ten years old, rides her bicycle in the neighborhood frequently. “I have noticed that when people are touring our neighborhood (the neighborhood still has quite a few open lots to build on) people see that sign and slow down significantly. So it has definitely served its purpose!” she shares. Hender-Jasper, who is also a Parent Guide in the Iowa H&V Chapter, says that she is glad that she went to the trouble to buy the signs and have them installed. Mary Anne Mulligan, of Denver, agrees. “I had one erected on our city block shortly after my son, Ryan, was diagnosed with a mild to severe bilateral hearing loss at 18 months of age,” she shared. The City of Denver had the sign up within three days of her request. Mulligan was particularly concerned because their house was situated within a school zone and worried about the additional traffic at the start and end of school. “We kept the sign up until Ryan was in third or fourth grade. At that time, he felt embarrassed by it and wanted it taken down. My request for that removal was dealt with quickly. The sign provided the protection I was seeking at the time; it served its purpose,” Mulligan notes.
What do the kids say?
Older children who are deaf or hard of hearing (d/hh) usually agree with Ryan. Maddie Burkholder didn’t seem to notice the signs at either of her houses until she turned 11. Now, at age 12, she says the signs invade her privacy and she feels unnecessarily labeled. Her neighbors had to agree to the sign placement in their yards, and both agreed gladly. The signs do seem to slow traffic on her street, according to neighbors, but there are motorists who drive above the residential speed limit regardless. Anne Hender-Jasper’s daughter feels it brings unnecessary attention to her and is embarrassed. Candace Lindow-Davies, Minnesota Hands & Voices Family Support Coordinator, discussed the topic with a woman who is deaf. “She hated the sign while she was growing up. It was more than embarrassing; it was like a scarlet letter. She was mortified to have people stop by and see this LABEL posted outside her house. Her family was told they would have to pay to have it removed,” Lindow-Davies related.
No parents of d/hh children believed that the sign would protect them on its own or was any kind of substitute for supervision while playing outside. All agreed that all children had to be taught safety rules and continually have them reinforced.
Options in Advocacy
Some locations still issue deaf child signs if a family requests them. Look up your city or county department of transportation to find out who to contact. As noted, some areas will charge the family for the signs. If a deaf child sign is not possible in a particular area, citizens (and preferably the neighborhood as a whole) can still request traffic studies, speed limit signs, speed awareness monitors (those signs that digitally flash a driver's speed back to them and warn when over the limit) and speed bumps/curbs to slow traffic. Playground and pedestrian crossing signs are still permitted, and maybe helpful. Roundabouts and extending sidewalks into the crosswalk are other additions to neighborhoods that do slow traffic.
There are a plethora of sites where parents can purchase their own “Deaf Child Area” or “Children at Play” signs, or even the more cringe-worthy “Hearing Impaired Child at Play” or “Slow Children.” There will always be a market for such signs, though as noted, they can be taken down by the local transportation authorities as “unauthorized.” Chresta Brinkman of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, puts out a “Children Playing” sign in her driveway when kids and neighbors play in her yard. That makes the sign meaningful and timely. Some parents want to purchase vests for their newly bicycling children that identify them as deaf or hard of hearing. A competitive snowboarder who is deaf did decide that it was worth her safety to wear such a sign on her ski jacket while recreationally snowboarding. The tall, colorful flags attached to bicycles and the use of FM units are other options that parents have used to increase safety while sharing the streets with vehicles.
With careful parenting and teaching, deaf and hard of hearing children should be at no more risk for accidents with passing motor vehicles than hearing children. As Maddie’s mom, I am glad we had the sign, but it’s time for it to come down now that she is older and definitely is safer on her bike, skateboard, or playing volleyball in the nearby park. Knowing what I know now, I don’t know if I would pursue the sign if we time travelled back to the day when she was two years old. The best drivers don’t need the signs. Will the worst drivers change their driving habits for a little yellow sign in your neighborhood? I wish I could tell you that they would.
- MUTCD: http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/
- Effectiveness of Children at Play Warning Signs, CTC and Associates LLC, September 2007
- http://www.fcgov.com/ Fort Collins memo
- Michelle Martin, http://www.raisethehammer.org/