Signing Santa brings inclusive holiday cheer to kids with hearing loss

For Deb Atwood, the Signing Santa event is always the highlight of the holidays. 
 
"It’s our favorite event of the year," says the executive director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services. “To see a child who is deaf have that experience with a deaf Santa who knows their language takes my breath away every time."

Nearly 80 children took part in this year's Signing Santa event. (DHHS)
 
One of her favorite memories is how early in the event's history, a little girl saw Santa signing, recognized her opportunity, ran up to him to sit in his lap, and had a long conversation with him. It was the first time she'd been able to communicate with Santa.
 
"All of us volunteers were crying," Atwood says, her eyes welling up even years later. "That's what it's all about — that these kids have a voice, and their voice is through sign language." 

Since 2009, DHHS has made a visit with Santa Claus an inclusive activity for children who are deaf and hard of hearing. (DHHS)

Hearing children have the opportunity to talk to Santa with a hearing Santa and they can communicate very easily. But for children who are deaf, such communication is not easy. That’s why it is important to have access to Signing Santa. 

A room filled with smiles

For years, DHHS has made a visit with Santa Claus an inclusive activity for children who are deaf and hard of hearing. About 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NISCD).

Children who attend the Signing Santa event receive a gift. (DHHS)

This year felt even more special because it was the first year back to DHHS’s traditional Signing Santa after two years of a drive-thru event due to COVID.

Being back in person gave the kids and parents an opportunity to talk and play together. The room was full of smiles and laughter. Some families had attended the event every year, while others joined for the first time.

The annual event began in 2009 when a person in the Deaf community brought the idea to the DHHS. 

The Signing Santa event include story time in ASL. (DHHS)

“She said that visiting Santa was something that deaf children miss out on, and she wanted to change that,” says Erica Chapin, DHHS community and partnerships manager. “So our agency started doing this event each year, and it has grown to be our most popular youth event.” 

Volunteers, sponsors help make it happen

What began with 10-20 children has grown to nearly 80 children. This year’s event was held on Dec. 10 at the DHHS’s new location in the Special Olympics Michigan Unified Sports and Inclusion Center at 160 68th St. SW in Cutlerville.

The three-hour event featured crafts, games, storytime, and, of course, a chance for every child to interact with a Santa who signs.

The Signing Santa event included games and activities.
   
Chapin says the annual event wouldn’t be possible without sponsors and about 30 volunteers. 

“We collect gift donations from the community leading up to the event, which makes it possible for us to provide a gift to every child who visits Santa,” she says.

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.