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February 15, 2003

My Turn : Technology — Improving Sound , Easing Fury

From: MSNBC - 15 Feb 2003

The battle between oralists and signers is ending, and the latest generation of deaf kids has won

By Jim Reisler

Feb. 24 issue — My daughter, Julia, was 5 years old when I first heard her swear. “Jesus!” she said one night at the dinner table in response to some now forgotten annoyance.

LIKE MOST PARENTS, I was outwardly mortified, wondering how she’d gotten such a potty mouth—by listening to me, most likely. But unlike other parents, I was also elated. That’s because Julia is deaf, and her swearing was evidence that she was starting to pick up the nuances of language, the flotsam and jetsam of conversation, including expressions that aren’t always meant to be heard.

Four years earlier, doctors had told us that Julia was severely to profoundly deaf. In the days that followed her diagnosis, my wife and I plunged ourselves into the complexities of Deaf Culture like eager grad students. We talked to teachers, doctors, speech therapists and other parents of deaf children to figure out whether we should raise Julia as an oralist—someone who uses hearing aids and reads lips—or a signer.

Ultimately, we concluded that she’d have a better chance of succeeding among the hearing if we opted for the oral lifestyle. But even after Julia was outfitted with hearing aids, she made excruciatingly slow progress—so slow that we wondered if we had made the right decision. Then, when she was 2½, she was fitted with a cochlear implant—a thumbnail-size device that sits in the inner ear and electronically stimulates the hearing nerve. Suddenly Julia’s capacity to learn language kicked in with the speed of a race car. Within a few months her vocabulary went from 25 words to a few hundred. Today Julia is a connected, interesting 9-year-old who speaks and reads above her age level and who is passionate about geography, her pet beagle, most things pink and the New York Yankees.

Julia’s steady progress is at the heart of a technological revolution that is sweeping the deaf world. Cochlear implants have been available since the FDA approved them almost 20 years ago, but they have become so sophisticated that many users can now enjoy music. Some public schools have begun offering a real-time captioning service in which trained assistants use a kind of shorthand to type the teacher’s words into a computer, so that a software program can translate them back into English. Julia’s teacher speaks through a headset that directs the sound of her voice through speakers right to where Julia sits. The floor is carpeted to muffle background noise, and she goes to speech therapy several times a month. For the first time, deaf children are on equal footing with their hearing classmates.

A happy side effect of this revolution is that the rift between oralists and Deaf Culture, or “Big D”—those who believe deaf children should eschew technological aids and embrace their identity by using only sign language—is slowly healing. That’s because signers can no longer deny the achievements of kids like Julia.

Recently my wife and I took her to the local school for the deaf, where we spoke to parents who are raising their toddlers as oralists. Just five years ago these children would most likely have been learning sign language. Schools for the deaf are traditionally militantly anti-oral; the fact they have an oral program at all is a remarkable acknowledgment that attitudes are changing. It hardly mattered what my wife and I had to say; the second Julia opened her mouth and those parents heard the clarity of her speech, she became a walking, talking billboard for the effectiveness of oralism.

For all the beauty and history of sign language, its adherents do not, as many believe, use a shorthand version of English to communicate. This means that signers are equipped to interact primarily with other signers. It’s a reality that schools for the deaf, which face declining enrollments as more parents opt for oralism, are grudgingly starting to accept.

Advances in technology will continue, and so will the oral vs. signing debate. I believe that parents of oral deaf kids should treat their signing brethren with sensitivity, and encourage their own children to be proud of their deafness. I have a dream of learning sign language with Julia when she becomes a teenager; she has already figured out that there’s nothing like reaching out to deaf friends to share stories about being the only deaf kid in her class.

Julia mentioned the other day that she wants to take up the flute. No big deal for most parents. But a deaf kid playing an instrument? How cool is that? My fondest hope is that more parents of deaf children will see how technology creates opportu-nity. Once they do, they’ll realize that the sky’s the limit for their kids.

Reisler lives in Irvington, N.Y.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.