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February 15, 2003

Cracks in the silence

From: Portland Press Herald, ME - 15 Feb 2003

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

NEW GLOUCESTER — Debbie Camire is delighted that her daughter can now say "I want that" about things she sees when they go to a store. "It's the clearest sentence in the world," she said.

Courtney Camire is 6, but - as her mother puts it - her ears are just 2 years old. That's because the Biddeford girl, who is deaf, got a cochlear implant two years ago, an electronic device that enables her to hear sound.

But Courtney, who previously communicated through American Sign Language, had never heard spoken language before, so she couldn't automatically understand words or pronounce them clearly. She's learning to do that now at a new preschool designed to help deaf and hard-of-hearing children listen and speak.

"We're bathing them in language," said George Krohne, executive director of hear ME now!, Maine's first oral deaf education school and one of only about 40 such schools in the country. Whereas the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth emphasizes learning sign language, hear ME now! focuses on honing kids' ability to communicate orally.

Located at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, the nonprofit preschool opened about five weeks ago. But its enrollment is growing quickly. Nine children are attending and another has signed up because families previously had to travel to Massachusetts to get the services it offers.

And parents already are delighted with the way the school is helping their children, both with their language and their social development.

"In the time she's been here, I've seen her come alive," Kelly Chadbourne said of her 3-year-old daughter, Tiffany. Tiffany, who wears a hearing aid, has learned to say new words and overcome her shyness enough to make her first close friend.

With the help of new technology such as modern hearing aids and cochlear implants - surgically implanted devices that stimulate nerves in the inner ear - more and more deaf and hard-of-hearing children are able to hear spoken language for the first time. But even with the devices, children need help in deciphering what they're hearing.

Often, hearing impairments in newborns are not detected until months or even a year or two have passed. By the time a diagnosis is made, the child has missed out on the exposure to spoken language that hearing children get before they start speaking themselves. Such exposure actually stimulates language centers in the brain, Krohne said.

And even when a diagnosis of hearing loss occurs, and a decision is made for a child to use a hearing aid or have a cochlear implant, that doesn't mean the child will automatically catch up with hearing children. Most children need help in distinguishing language from other noises they hear, and in learning what meaning the sounds have, and how to produce them accurately.

"It's like a newborn," said Suzanne Chadwick, whose 4-year-old daughter, Lauren, received a cochlear implant two years ago. "You don't expect an infant to talk to you."

While parents need to help their children learn to listen and speak, they typically don't have the training to do so. Parents are very much involved in the new preschool, where they're urged to observe lessons and pick up techniques they can use at home.

Many of the activities at the preschool, held four mornings a week in a sunny brick building on the campus of the former Pineland Center, are identical to ones found in most pre-schools: painting, games and stories. But while the children enjoyed themselves during a recent class, they were also busy absorbing language.

Heather Peters, a teacher for the deaf, and Lori Levesque, a specialist in early childhood education, frequently repeat words and describe what they're doing, and encourage the children to verbalize.

Courtney, who attends the preschool to get extra help in addition to being in a regular kindergarten in Biddeford, was urged to say the words "paintbrush" and "dragon" - a picture of which she had just painted. She managed close approximations.

To help cut down on background noise that can distract children as they learn to focus on the meaningful sounds of language, the preschool's state-of-the-art classrooms have carpeting on the walls as well as the floors, fluorescent lights that don't hum and and quiet ventilation systems. Children also have daily one-on-one and group therapy with a speech pathologist.

The teachers often stand back to let the children just socialize. Difficulty communicating with others can make deaf and hard-of-hearing children feel isolated. Courtney's mother said that only a few members of the family managed to learn some ASL, so Courtney wasn't able to talk to everyone.

The Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, on Mackworth Island in Falmouth, is the state school for the deaf. It serves about 15 percent of Maine's approximately 500 hearing-impaired children on campus, and the rest through outreach programs in their home schools. It has a preschool, too. Two days a week, students learn to communicate through ASL and learn to read and write English. Two other days per week, the school offers a new "Sound and Sign" class, in which children are exposed to language through spoken English as well as ASL, said Larry Taub, the school's superintendent.

But the focus at Baxter is on having children learn ASL. Parents of children with hearing aids or cochlear implants have been complaining for years that they've had to find private speech therapists or go out of state for programs that provide their children with the kind of intensive oral training that the hear ME now! preschool is now providing.

Krohne said the school doesn't cost the families anything because of scholarships from the Oberkotter Foundation, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that advocates oral deaf education. Krohne said schools in other states charge about $25,000 per year for the type of services the preschool offers.

The new preschool also is holding fund-raisers and is applying for state funding. Krohne stressed that finances will not be a bar to any child's attending. "I will not turn anyone away," he said.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791- 6367 or at:

Copyright © 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.