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January 31, 2005

Technological advances allow deaf, hard of hearing, to participate in the world

From: Monitor - McAllen,TX,USA - Jan 31, 2005

Jennifer C. Smith
The Monitor

WESLACO — Much has changed since the Chicago elementary school Cliff Lamping attended used corporal punishment to make deaf students talk and forbade the use of sign language.

"I was beaten up eight times growing up and beat up 20 kids," said Lamping, 52.

Now a Mission resident, Lamping meets each month with the Rio Grande Valley Hearing Loss Support Group, in the Texas State Bank conference room in Weslaco.

While the deaf and hard of hearing still face challenges, recent innovations are helping them become fully integrated in society.

Technological advances in recent years have produced digital hearing aids that suppress background noise, and cochlear implants, small electronic devices that provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. Flashing phones and blinking fire alarms are used to alert the deaf. American Sign Language interpreters can help their clients in hospitals and the court system, and hard of hearing and deaf support groups and activities are scattered throughout the Valley. The Austin School for the Deaf has several Valley students, and many others are enrolled in local educational facilities.

"We're looking at the deaf community now in a new standpoint," said Despy Cardenas, interpreter coordinator for the Valley Association for Independent Living, a McAllen nonprofit organization that offers sign language interpreting, education and professional development classes. "They want to be productive and want to be in society and a lot of doors are opening for them. In the past, (it was) more closed."

Eight percent of the people in Hidalgo County are hard of hearing or deaf, said Beth Bryant, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, which offers programs and assistance to disabled Texans.

"We want to make sure people with disabilities have full access to society, can work and live independently," she said in a telephone interview.

The DARS Division of Rehabilitation Services has vocational training, job counseling and placement for physically or mentally disabled people who are seeking employment. The DARS Division of Deaf or Hard of Hearing Services offers sign language training and referral and disabled equipment demonstrations by a hard of hearing specialist.

Phones with extra-large buttons or red flashes, hands-free voice amplification devices for cell phones and the dialogue Voice Carry Over telephone, in which one party dials 711 for a relay operator to type a message that appears on the other party's VOC telephone screen, have all become popular items, said Nora Diaz, a regional specialist with the South Texas Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which is funded by DARS.

Patients also are enthusiastic about the Texas Video Interpreting Service, which allows users to communicate with another person in ASL via desktop computer with videoconference tools.

Diaz said she has 300 clients in the Valley, primarily in Hidalgo County.

"Not too many people know I'm here," she said, laughing.

A small hard of hearing and deaf community — and the persistent stigma attached to hearing loss — offset community exposure, according to doctors and some people who suffer from hearing loss.

"When you can't hear, they always think you're dumb," said Lamping, stroking his 4-year-old German shepherd and collie mix. The dog is trained to alert Lamping when the telephone or doorbell rings, and when the microwave or fire alarm sound.

Often people who don't hear well are ignored, said Donald Anderson, a 74-year-old Mission resident, whose wife, Virginia, has a cochlear implant.

"A lot of people think deaf people are snobbish," he said. "They tend to be isolated and avoid situations where it's difficult for them to hear."

Interpreters can be a great asset, but the Valley needs 50 to 100 more to meet its burgeoning population, Cardenas said. She gets seven to 15 requests daily for ASL interpreters.

"People don't know about interpreters," she said, adding VAIL is recruiting ASL, English Sign Language and Mexican Sign Language interpreters.

Many parents, particularly of young children, have a hard time accepting their 2-or 3-month old could be deaf, said Ramiro Verdooren, a McAllen ear, nose and throat specialist.

"You have to learn sign language to communicate with your kid," he said. "To have a kid (being) deaf is very difficult."

Older people also deny hearing loss, although it affects nearly 314 in 1,000 people over age 65, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Washington, D.C.

"They say, 'I hear but I don't know what people are telling me,'" he said. "If you tell them to wear a hearing aid, they don't want to. They feel like they are crippled."

Hearing loss can be hereditary, or the result of disease, trauma or exposure to noise such as firing a shotgun, going to a concert, or operating machinery, said James Sorce, an ear, throat and nose specialist at Valley Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists in McAllen.

Meningitis or certain medications, such as IV antibiotics, are also factors, he said.

The aging population means a growing caseload of patients needing hearing aids and cochlear implants, doctors said.

But hearing aids, which can run anywhere between $200 to $4,000, and implants, which can cost up to $15,000, do not fall within the income levels of most people, Sorce said.

"There's a significant need for intensive speech and language therapy after surgery," he said. "It's out of reach for most."

Parents who do use rehab services should also go to sign language classes, said Letty Lopez, a speech language pathologist at Aptus Therapy Services in Edinburg. The rehab center also has offices in Rio Grande City and Roma.

"A lot of times we face parents who bring their child to therapy who they want to talk," she said. "If a child has been using sign language for years, he or she doesn't want to talk."


Jennifer C. Smith covers environment, science and health issues at The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4462.

© 2005 The Monitor and Freedom Interactive Newspapers of Texas, Inc.