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One Mother’s Journey From Adversity to Opportunity

In December of 1996, Rachel Coleman and her husband, Aaron, welcomed their first daughter, Leah, into the world. At the time, Rachel was writing music and performing with her folk rock band. They would take young Leah to band practices and concerts and were amazed that she was able to sleep in spite of the loud music. When she was fourteen months old, they discovered why: Leah was profoundly deaf.

To say the least, their world turned upside down. Rachel’s priorities instantly changed. She put down her guitar and picked up sign language. She and her husband immediately started teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to Leah as fast as they could learn it. Something remarkable happened: by the time Leah was 18 months old, her baby sign language vocabulary far surpassed the spoken vocabulary of “hearing” children her same age. While Leah’s little friends could only point and whine for something they wanted, Leah could sign, “Juice, not milk” or, “Cheese and crackers, please”. Other parents took notice, including Rachel’s sister, Emilie, who started teaching sign language to her infant son, Alex, so that he would be able to communicate with Leah. Emilie was thrilled one morning when baby Alex, then only ten months old, found his own use for sign language. He stopped fussing, looked up at her, and signed “milk”.

Leah Coleman

A few years later, Rachel and Aaron’s second daughter, Lucy, was born. After dealing with Leah’s deafness, they felt a second child would be easy. However, Lucy arrived eight weeks premature with spina bifida and cerebral palsy. Doctors worried that Lucy would never be able to speak, let alone use her rigid fingers to sign with her deaf sister.

Emilie and Alex

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, Rachel and her sister Emilie decided to team up to create a captivating, entertaining video to teach sign language to children who were not deaf. Their plan was to make a short video that gave their friends and family a fun and easy way to learn ASL as a second language, but most importantly to give them enough basic signs to communicate with Leah. In May of 2002 the first volume of Signing Time was completed, starring Rachel, 3-year-old Alex and 4-year-old Leah. The response was overwhelming. Word spread from mom to mom and family to family. Before long, the small community of people learning to sign with Leah grew into an expansive community of parents, educators, and health professionals using Signing Time to introduce the benefits of sign language to children everywhere. Testimonials poured in with touching stories about how Signing Time had been instrumental in dissolving communication barriers and giving a “voice” to children who previously had no way to express themselves. Everyone wanted more Signing Time. Rachel and Emilie’s company, Two Little Hands Productions, was born.

Lucy Coleman

Shortly after the release of Volume 1, the Coleman family experienced a miracle of their own making. After two years of no communication, Rachel’s second daughter, Lucy, then two years old, was not communicating at all. No signs…nothing. One day while watching Signing Time, Lucy attempted a gesture that Rachel had never seen before, but looked like the sign for “more”. Rachel said, “Lucy, do you want more?” Lucy’s eyes opened wide as if to convey, “Hey mom, you got it right!” From that point forward, Lucy’s sign language vocuabulary slowly but steadily increased, despite her physical challenges and gloomy prognosis. Shortly thereafter, Lucy started talking. By the time she reached the age of five, Lucy began attending mainstream kindergarten, something Rachel never imagined possible. Lucy continues in a mainstream classroom to this day and excels in her schoolwork.

It’s Time for Signing Time

Around the time Signing Time was being developed, the media began to pick up on the benefits of signing with hearing infants. While most people at the time still thought sign language was only for the deaf, scores of parents everywhere began to pay attention and joined Rachel, Emilie and other proponents of “baby sign language“, sharing it as a powerful means of teaching babies and toddlers to communicate before they can talk.

Scientific studies show that “typical” children who learn to sign as babies:

  • have higher IQ scores than those who do not sign
  • tend to be better adjusted socially
  • tend to read at an earlier age

Many parents observe that by learning to communicate earlier, the “terrible twos” are not so terrible – children can use a sign instead of throwing a tantrum to express their needs.

In the 2004 sequel to “Meet the Parents” Robert DeNiro’s character was teaching his baby grandson “Little Jack” to sign so that he would be smarter.


Emilie signs ‘socks’ during
production of volume 2

(Little Jack was played by twins Spencer and Bradley Pickren, who actually did learn sign language from Signing Time.) While the movie was comedic in nature, it marked the point of mainstream awareness of signing as a revolutionary parenting tool.

For All Children Everywhere

Evidence is also mounting that children with special needs, such as apraxia of speech, autism, or down syndrome who have difficulty with speech can make great strides in their communication development when Signing Time is part of their regimen. The multi-sensory approach of Signing Time engages visual learners, kinesthetic learners, and auditory learners of all ages and abilities, while making sign language easy and fun.

Thanks in large part to Signing Time, sign language is now gaining recognition as an all-encompassing tool for communication that anyone can use. Signing Time is used widely by educators, pediatricians, home-schoolers, speech therapists, public schools, daycare centers, libraries, and families. Whether used by a pre-verbal infant, a non-verbal child with disabilities, or a family who simply wants to learn ASL as a second language, signing has become an important part of American culture.

While sign language is beneficial for every child, Rachel confesses a more personal goal. She says, “My hope is that everyone will know a little sign, just as most people know a little Spanish – so when your child sees my child at the park, there would be no awkwardness, no communication barrier, just three signs… “Hi … friend … play’… that is all it would take to change her world.”

Epilogue

Today, Two Little Hands Productions offers a full line of children’s products) including DVDs, CDs, board books, flash cards and more) that uses music and sign language to promote early learning. Their brands include Signing TimeBaby Signing TimePotty Time, and Rachel & The TreeSchoolers.

Two Little Hands is truly a family business:  Rachel and Emilie’s father, Lex de Azevedo, is now the CEO, their youngest brother, Aaron, is involved in production and marketing, and Rachel’s husband, Aaron, is involved in filming.

Emilie and her husband, Derek, welcomed three more children into their family: Zac, Eliza and Spencer. Rachel’s familiy grew, too. She was reunited with her daughter, Lara, whom she had placed for adoption before Leah and Lucy were born.

Come and play with Signing Time

A mother's wish for children on the playground to approach her daughter and say "Hi, friend, play" blossomed into an effort that opened doors for families everywhere.

After growing up in a musical family and building a career around music as a writer and singer, Rachel de Azevedo Coleman and her husband, Aaron, discovered their 1-year-old daughter, Leah, was deaf in 1998.

"Leah was the first deaf person I ever met," Ms. Coleman, 28, said.

Putting their music on hold, the Colemans dedicated themselves to learning American Sign Language so they could give the gift of communication to Leah. She went from having no communication skills at 14 months of age to full-blown communication in just a few months, Ms. Coleman said.

Her sister, Emilie de Azevedo Brown, 32, and her husband, Derek, began teaching their infant son, Alex, sign language so he could communicate with his cousin.

Ms. Coleman's second daughter, Lucy, was born with cerebral palsy and spina bifida, and doctors told her she would not be able to communicate with her deaf sister. The Colemans were determined to teach sign language to Lucy, who now, at age 3, knows hundreds of signs.

"She was trapped in her body, she couldn't open her hands," Ms. Coleman said. "It gave her that focus."

Wanting to open the world of signing to all children, the sisters produced three videos that teach signing to kids in a fun and easy way. The Signing Time videos are geared toward hearing children and entertain using music and animation.

"Most of our audience is hearing," Ms. Brown said. But the videos are also great for families who are new to deafness.

Alex and Leah are the stars of the show, while Ms. Coleman teaches 75 signs and wrote the songs for the three videos.

"For us the mission of these videos is a two-pronged approach," said Ms. Brown. "One is giving the gift of sign language to all children."

Children can communicate before using words, and learning American Sign Language can boost future language and reading skills, she said. Studies show IQ can increase. Leah and Alex could read and write by the time they were 2 years old.

Tantrums become fewer because children who cannot speak their wants and needs can use sign language to get something across, Ms. Brown said. When Alex was just 10 months old, he stopped fussing and made the sign for milk to his mother.

"The squawking really does reduce," Ms. Brown said. "We went from tantrums to 'Oh, milk and cereal, Mom.' Once they get it, they take off like wildfire."

She said children use their hands through playing pattycake and singing about the eensy, weensy spider. "It's native to them to communicate physically."

Secondly, children with autism and other disabilities that keep them from communicating with their voices can use sign language.

"Other benefits come by bridging various barriers," Ms. Brown said.

A child may see another child at a park with a disability using sign language. Instead of being afraid, a child who knows sign language can easily approach the disabled one and communicate.

"Signing is a tool you've got with you," Ms. Coleman said.

The sisters use park settings to host Signing Time play dates. Parents and children play games and sing and sign Signing Time songs.

Judi Rockhill of Silver Spring brought her twin daughters, 2, to a Sunday play date at Hadley's Playground in Potomac. She is a sign language interpreter and wanted to share her world with her children.

"I've been teaching them sign language since the day they were born," she said. "The tapes are the first way I've been able to get them to sign."

She works with professional deaf adults in the government and private sectors, and she "goes between both worlds" of the deaf and hearing, she said.

Her husband and babysitter enjoy watching the videos even after the kids go to bed.

"My husband didn't sign, and now he does," she said. "They're very parent-friendly tapes."

The videos began from scrapbooks the sisters kept of what they lovingly called the adventures of Alex and Leah. They distributed the videos to cousins and friends, and their Two Little Hands Production Co. grew.

"The response was so awesome," Ms. Coleman said. They began receiving feedback from parents of kids with other disabilities.

"We knew there was a demand. We didn't realize how many families were desperate for it," Ms. Brown said.

Leah is now 6 years old, and Alex is 5. Kids who watch the videos connect with the cousins and think of them as their friends, Ms. Coleman said.

She works out of an office in her home, while her husband stays at home with their daughters. Ms. Brown also does voice-over work.

"What we're doing is with the kids," Ms. Brown said. Their husbands appear in the videos as well.

"No one's going to become fluent from these videos, but it's so easy, even a baby can do it," she said.

For more information, visit www.signingtime.com.

Family Focus: Sign Of A Close Family

Rachel de Azevedo Coleman produced Signing Time videos after she and her husband, Aaron, learned sign language to communicate with Leah, their deaf 7-year-old daughter. Their younger daughter Lucy has cerebral palsey and spina bifida. Sign language has created a bond between the two sisters.

The name de Azevedo may ring a bell — and many other sounds — given the musical success of both Lex de Azevedo and Julie de Azevedo, as well as others in the family.

But the lack of sound was the motivation behind the family’s latest pursuit.

Sisters Rachel de Azevedo Coleman and Emilie de Azevedo Brown are the producers of “Signing Time,” which is a series of videos teaching children who hear how to speak in sign language. Although they sold more than 50,000 videos last year around the world, the original intent was simply to help Leah, who is Rachel’s 7-year-old daughter.

“When I realized my daughter was deaf,” Rachel says, “I just couldn’t find a way to rationalize spending hours working on my music. My priorities changed. I put down my guitar and picked up sign language.”

After Rachel and her husband, Aaron, learned to sign to their daughter, they wanted to teach others how to speak the language, too, so that Leah’s world could expand. Emilie and her husband, Derek, taught their son, Alex, how to sign so he could communicate with his cousin.

Now cousins Alex and Leah are the stars on the videos. They interact and sign to each other, encouraging thousands of children to drop their fear of the hearing-impaired and pick up the basics of the language.

This personal pursuit is now one of the fastest growing companies in Utah.

But Two Little Hands Productions feels less like a company and more like a family with a passionate cause. Father Lex arranges the music that goes with the videos. Another sister is the office manager. Rachel’s husband works with the company. Leah’s grandmother is her on-set nanny when the videos are being made. Rachel’s brothers play guitar and bass on the videos.

The family is starting production on volumes 4, 5 and 6 this year, which will teach the alphabet, home-related signs and “favorite things,” such as colors, activities and more.

“We’re kicking things up a notch and widening what we teach,” Rachel says.

The family team is the secret to the success.

“We know what each other is capable of,” Rachel says. “There is none of that second guessing. We trust each other and share a vision for the project.”

The bright outlook for the company has also brightened the life of Rachel’s other daughter Lucy, who was born with cerebral palsy and spinal bifida.

The outlook was originally very limited for Lucy, who is now 3, but what the doctors didn’t know was that Lucy was born into a signing family, and this language would open her world faster and wider than other kids facing her same disabilities.

Lucy has hundreds of signs and spoken words. Lucy became the first of many Signing Time miracles.

The family travels around the country promoting the videos. Before they arrive they e-mail the customer base in that area to plan a playdate.

“Originally we were thinking of the benefits for us — Leah could be with other deaf children,” Rachel says. “But now we realize that there are benefits for everyone. The families love to see Leah — she is a celebrity to them. And the parents get a chance to talk to each other about the challenges of raising children with disabilities. Signing Time has given them hope.”

The famous family has been recognized by their supporters in airports, at Disneyland and all over the country for their videos and also their interviews on programs such as “The Today Show” and magazines like “Ladies Home Journal.”

But the biggest success has come within Rachel’s family, where she has two daughters who are both overcoming challenges largely due to the principles in Signing Time.

“I’m so glad we had Leah first because she opened our world and our vision of what a family is,” Rachel says.

Rachel attributes their growing sales numbers to the “soccer mom effect.” Word of mouth is what drives customers to www.signingtime.com to purchase the videos. Many pediatricians and speech therapists have also recommended the video series.

“I know of families who have sought help for a child with a speech delay,” Rachel says. “The doctor has taken the prescription pad and written ‘signingtime.com.’”

In Rachel’s office she keeps a world map to mark international sales. Pins are sitting in India, Germany, Malaysia and Australia, as well as Canada and many other far-flung places.

“This little idea of opening up Leah’s world has turned into something so much bigger,” Rachel says.

Rachel Coleman: Signing Time and the Importance of Communication

Rachel Coleman, the creator of Signing Time, and a special needs mom just like the moms in our support group, shared music and inspiration with conference attendees on Friday morning. 1p36 Deletion children are frequently non-verbal, so families like mine often turn to Signing Time to give our children a voice.

Over the years, I've come to admire Rachel Coleman's hard work and the way she fights for her own special needs children's rights. Her daughter Leah is Deaf and her daughter Lucy has Cerebral Palsy but they both get along great in this world because of their tireless, supportive parents.

The children in attendance on Friday were treated to several of their favorite Signing Time songs and the parents enjoyed some great words of advice on never giving up on your special needs child's abilities and potential. Then Rachel impressed us all by taking the time to pose for a photo with each and every child in attendance. Thank you, Rachel for making the day special for my daughter and her friends!

One final note: Rachel is an accomplished singer and song writer, but I would say, very most of all I enjoy reading her blog. She writes about the inspiration and the challenge of being a mom and a care giver. Check it out at http://www.rachelcoleman.com/.

Kickstarter brings new faces to TreeSchoolers

May 2, 2014

Because of YOU…

As we wrap up production of the latest episode of Rachel & the TreeSchoolers My Amazing Body, we’d like to send out a big THANK YOU to all of you who backed our Kickstarter campaign. You made this show possible!

Missed it? Don’t worry!

We’re days away from Kickstarting the remaining episodes of Rachel & the TreeSchoolers. Join our list and we’ll let you know when the new campaign starts so you can grab of those amazing early-bird backer rewards before they get snapped up.

Your kids in our show

Many families chose the “Your Child in Our Show” reward in our last Kickstarter campaign, so you’ll see lots of new faces in the upcoming episodes! Rachel, Emilie, and our production crew loved meeting and filming these wonderful families in Utah, California, and Washington DC.

Here are some of the families you’ll be meeting in Rachel & the TreeSchoolers: My Amazing Body!

Gallery

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