Northwest NEWS

December 17, 2001

Features

Attitude, technology open doors for hearing-impaired children

by Deborah Stone
   Features Writer
   When a child is diagnosed as deaf or having a significant hearing loss, a parent has to make an important choice regarding the communication method(s) for the child to learn.
   There are programs that teach only sign language, others that instruct in the Total Communication approach (a combination of sign language and verbal therapy) and a select few that focus solely on auditory-verbal therapy (teaching children to speak through maximizing development of their auditory potential).
   For many years, this latter method was not viewed as being a viable option among many professionals in the field of audiology and deaf education. The belief was that deaf children couldn't learn to speak.
   Today, advances in technology have given birth to more sophisticated hearing amplification devices and hearing implants, which have in turn shed new light on the abilities of deaf children to speak and hear.
   The attitudes of professionals are slowly changing and agencies and schools are just beginning to act upon these new discoveries.
   One such place, Listen and Talk, a private, not-for-profit educational program in Bothell, has dedicated itself to working with parents who want to teach their children with hearing loss to listen and speak.
   Formed in 1996, it is the only private early intervention auditory-verbal program and preschool in the state of Washington. It offers a range of services including a parent/infant program; individual auditory-verbal therapy emphasizing the development of listening, thinking, speech and oral language skills; blended preschool classrooms for hearing and hearing-impaired children; cochlear implant habilitation; support for children in the mainstream and consultation services.
   The program is unique because it puts a strong emphasis on auditory-verbal development for children using traditional hearing aids and/or cochlear implants (highly sophisticated devices implanted into the head to provide access to sound), as well as advocates for early inclusion into a child's neighborhood school.
   It is a proponent of the belief that parents are a child's most important teachers and that a partnership with parents is critical to each child's success.
   Since its inception, Listen and Talk has experienced growth in its services due to the growth of its service population.
   Executive Director George Olson says, "We currently serve 44 children in various levels of our program, but in the past eight months, we have doubled the number of children in our Parent/Infant Program.
   "Our growth in this area is attributed to early identification of hearing loss plus the new auditory technology that has been created. With this technology, all children have the potential for being oral."
   Speech and language therapists, teachers of the deaf and audiologists work with each child in the program on lifelong goals that include the abilities to learn and gain information through conversations, to produce intelligible speech and to effectively communicate without the need for an interpreter.
   "We work toward preparing children for early inclusion into their neighborhood school," adds Olson. "We've had a great success rate in this area and in the past five years, we've had only a handful of children who haven't been able to be mainstreamed without additional interventions."
   Work begins in the Parent/Infant Program, where therapists act as coaches, teaching the parents how to work with their child in a natural way. Through the use of appropriate hearing aids and/or a cochlear implant the child learns to respond to sound and associate sound with meaning while participating in play activities. As the child develops, he learns to understand and use spoken language. Parents model and practice what the therapists have taught them, continuing the work at home.
   By the age of four, some children are ready to enter a neighborhood preschool program, but for those who are not yet ready for full inclusion into the mainstream, a blended pre-kindergarten class is offered at Listen and Talk. Children with normal hearing participate in this classroom to help provide a typical early childhood experience. Those with hearing loss continue to receive individual therapy in addition to their classroom experience.
   Once the child is mainstreamed into his neighborhood school, Listen and Talk staff will assist classroom teachers when needed by consulting with them about skills and strategies for including the deaf and hard of hearing children in the daily work of the classroom.
   It is important that the child receive as much support as possible to make the transition smooth and to ensure his academic success.
   "Our program is not only important for the children whom we serve, but it is also vital to the parents of these children," comments Olson. "We offer opportunities for the parents to get together and interact with one another through our Parent Support Groups.
   "Parents meet to discuss topics of interest to them, to hear speakers talk about various issues and just to share time with other parents whose children are deaf and hard-of-hearing. They need this time for their own emotional well-being."
   Admission to Listen and Talk is based on parental commitment and the child's ability to benefit from the program.
   "This choice of approach," explains founding director Star Leonard-Fleckman, is dependent on the family's goals. If the family wants the child to be able to listen and talk and to be educated in the neighborhood school as well as to be able to communicate with others, aside from family members and friends, without an interpreter, then this approach is the right choice for that family.
   "Is this program for every hearing impaired child? Basically there's not one approach that works for all children and there are a lot of variables that affect success with this method.
   "The earlier a child is identified and amplified with the appropriate technologies to provide access to sound, the higher the success rate will be. You also need to factor in the commitment of the parent. It takes highly committed parents to make this work. There can be, however, other kinds of hearing losses within the child that affect the nerves to the brain and this may complicate the situation and the ability of the child to experience success with this type of therapy."
   Most of the children served at Listen and Talk have a severe to profound hearing loss (75-100 decibels) and according to Leonard-Fleckman, their speech varies widely.
   She says, "With some children, you would immediately recognize that they were hearing impaired by their speech, but with others, you wouldn't know it and it would totally shock you.
   "Once again, this is dependent on how early you start the therapy and on how early you provide access to sound and the continued access to sound."
   With the advancements in technology that have occurred and those that are bound to happen in the future, the question that comes to mind is whether the deaf culture itself will eventually disappear.
   "There's the possibility that the deaf culture will someday fade away," comments Leonard-Fleckman, "but it would take many, many years for this to happen. In 1995, I read the statistic that only 5 percent of the deaf were being educated in the auditory-verbal approach. That's a very small portion of that population. I'm sure it's a bit higher now, but it still is small. It would take many generations for the deaf culture to die out at this rate."
   For Leonard-Fleckman, however, the important issue is not whether the deaf culture will ultimately disappear, but rather what choices are available to deaf and hearing-impaired children and their parents.
   She says, "Ninety-five percent of all parents with deaf children are hearing parents. Why not allow these children the same access to sound as their parents? Why not give them this choice?
   For more information about Listen and Talk, call (425) 483-9700.