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December 4, 2002

Immersed in a world of sound: Bothell school takes unusual approach with hard-of-hearing kids

From: Seattle Times, WA - 04 Dec 2002

By J. Patrick Coolican
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Marching across the stage in cardboard crowns yesterday, tentatively singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," the preschoolers sounded like other kids their age. Without the help of hearing devices, though, most would not be able to hear the piano accompaniment.

They are among the 51 students at Listen and Talk, a school of mostly hard-of-hearing children in Bothell that helps them use the latest technology to develop communication skills — without the use of sign language — that will land them in regular classrooms.

School officials say the combination of technology, early diagnosis and intensive sound and language immersion works, preventing children from being cut off from the aural world. They point to the 80 percent of the school's alumni who are in mainstream classrooms as evidence of their success.

A visitor to the school on this particular day said she wished Listen and Talk, founded in 1996, had been available to her as a child. Amanda Beers, Miss Washington 2002, is hard of hearing, and because her parents' insurance didn't cover the devices, much of the world of sound was a mystery until recently.

She persevered, however, and will be a junior at Whitworth College after her Miss Washington tour, during which she has been advocating on behalf of the hard of hearing.

Despite her condition — deaf to some low and high pitches — Beers is a music major.

After accompanying the children on "Twinkle, Twinkle," she played a Beethoven sonata, which she said the composer wrote just after he learned he would never recover his hearing.

As she played the first note, the children hushed, and their eyes widened.

Their parents speak about the school in reverential tones. Judy Shafer said she was devastated when she learned that her

9-month-old son Charlie's previous case of meningitis had caused severe hearing loss in both ears.

"You see this baby and you fast-forward — what will his options be? And there's the little questions: What will dinner conversation be like?"

With the help of advanced, digitized hearing aids and Listen and Talk's intensive therapy, Charlie, now 6, is in a regular first-grade class at St. Matthew's in Seattle, though he still gets help at Listen and Talk. As he fit shapes into a puzzle yesterday at Listen and Talk, he was not shy in talking about his favorite books (the "Arthur" series), sport (soccer) and activity (watching television).

Listen and Talk's education director, Maura Berndsen, said advances in technology have revolutionized life for the hard of hearing, particularly children, since about 1990. A special implant can help correct malformations of the cochlear bone — the snail-shaped bone in the ear — for people who can't use hearing aids.

Another device can connect a speaker with a listener through an FM radio signal, which eliminates background noise, distance and reverberation, all major impediments to hearing. And hearing aids that once picked up unclear analog signals are now digital.

Technology, however, is useless without teachers to implement it, Berndsen and members of the deaf community say.

"What concerns the deaf community," said Michael Kaika, a spokesman for Washington, D.C.'s Gallaudet University, a leading school for the deaf and hard of hearing, "is that hearing parents who have deaf children tend to think that a cochlear implant will make their children hear like a hearing person. It will not make the child hear like a hearing person. It will require a lot of training and therapy to help identify sounds and speech."

With the technology in place, Berndsen said, Listen and Talk must teach the children, as young as infants, to recognize that sound exists and is meaningful. Most children are surrounded by sounds from birth and come to infuse them with meaning. But Listen and Talk must immerse its students in sound — which can make for a noisy classroom.

For a very small percentage of the deaf, such as those lacking an auditory nerve, the new technology and treatment will not work, Berndsen conceded.

And the approach met some resistance in the hard-of-hearing and deaf community, particularly in the school's early days, Executive Director George Olson said.

That's because many hard-of-hearing and deaf people don't think of the condition as a disability but as a difference — like race, gender or religion — with sign language as a key source of identity, he said.

Berndsen and Olson say they merely want to provide parents with options.

Rebecca Berry of Woodinville is grateful. Her son, Joshua, found to have a cochlear malformation at age 3, is now in a mainstream kindergarten.

"He gets in trouble for talking too much," she gloated.

J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or

Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company