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February 10, 2003

Hospitals now all test hearing in newborns

From: Oakland Tribune, CA - 10 Feb 2003

County institutions meet Dec. 31 deadline imposed by state law
By Mike Adamick, STAFF WRITER

BERKELEY -- When Steve Smith's daughter was born seven years ago, hearing tests were not routine.

So it wasn't until Madi was almost 2 that her parents discovered the blond, precocious child had a hearing impairment.

"She had my wife and I completely fooled," said Smith, of Berkeley.

A new law -- which passed in 1998 but did not take full effect until Dec. 31 -- requires every hospital under California Children's Services to test newborns for hearing impairments.

Already, the ripple effects of the new law have spread to Berkeley, where the nonprofit Center for the Education of the Infant Deaf plans to build a campus this spring on Grayson Street to make room for more children.

At this time last year, the center received one referral from hospitals every three weeks. "Now, we're getting one a day," said Jill Ellis, executive director and co-founder of the center, founded in 1980.

Hearing tests at birth would have saved Madi and her family two years of frustration and worry, Smith said. Madi babbled like other children. She seemed to respond to talking. Doctors just thought she was "stubborn."

"There was no reason to expect anything was wrong," Ellis said. "Madi, more so than almost any baby we saw, had the world by her baby finger. She was just cute and bright and smart, and she knew how to control her environment."

But because Madi was not talking like other children, and because of rising frustration and tantrums stemming from miscommunications, her parents knew something was wrong. After initially being told everything was fine, they persisted and discovered Madi had a hearing impairment.

"We saw a tremendous change once she was able to communicate with us," Smith said.

Madi received a hearing aid and has been learning sign language. At age 7, things are looking much brighter, Smith said.

"If she had been identified at birth, we could have saved those two years," Smith said.

The law is designed to provide early intervention for children with hearing problems.

Hospitals falling under the purview of California Children's Services are required to provide the tests. Through special earphones, the testing machines emit low-level sounds and then scan brain activity in the newborn.

About 400,000 newborns -- or 75 percent of those born in California -- are expected to be tested each year under the new law, Ellis said. About three in 1,000 children have hearing impairments and need help.

The earlier they get it, the better, Ellis said.

She said a normal child will develop a vocabulary of about 1,000 words by age 3. If an infant has a hearing impairment and it isn't noticed and corrected for two years, that child will have a vocabulary of only about 25 words by age 3, she said.

Even up to mid-December, hospitals were not requiring the tests, Ellis said. But as the deadline loomed, all Alameda County hospitals had testing programs in place, she said.

Even Highland Hospital Oakland -- which does not fall under the law -- voluntarily agreed to implement the hearing tests, Ellis said.

While early testing can make life easier for children and start them on the right track, there is a broader argument for testing, said Mike Taylor, whose two sons were diagnosed with hearing problems at birth.

For one thing, Taylor said, children who receive treatment right away will not have to rely on extensive special education in the future, a potential savings of state funds.

Taylor's son, Jonathan, was diagnosed with a hearing impairment at birth after tests at Stanford Medical Center. He received treatment -- in the form of hearing aids -- within 10 weeks.

"His language skills are exceptional," Taylor said. "You would never know that the kid is hearing impaired."

Now age 3 and in preschool, Jonathan has a younger brother, Dylan, who has been diagnosed with a hearing problem.

"We knew exactly what we were looking at and how to deal with it," Taylor said.

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