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March 24, 2005

Listening to her heart

From: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - Pittsburgh,PA,USA - Mar 24, 2005

By Daniel Casciato
Thursday, March 24, 2005

For nearly a year after Elena LaQuatra was diagnosed with meningitis at the age of 4, she was deaf and her speech began failing.

Now, nine years later, she's delivering show-stopping Shakespearean monologues as eloquently as any polished actor.

The young thespian mesmerized judges with her performance at the 11th annual Pittsburgh Public Theater Shakespeare Monologue and Scene Contest at the O'Reilly Theater last month.

The contest had nearly 950 participants in grades four through 12. LaQuatra and Megan Hosking, both from Jefferson Middle School, won first place in the Shakespeare Scene for the junior division, grades four through seven, with their performance as Juliet and her nurse, from "Romeo and Juliet."

"We were really excited when we won," said LaQuatra, 13, of Mt. Lebanon. "It was a tough competition, but it was just a wonderful experience and a lot of fun."

LaQuatra, a seventh-grader, also was a finalist in the monologue contest performing as Constance from "King John." She was the only student to make it to the finals in both contests.

"We were all excited when she won. She did a wonderful job," said Effie Alexander, LaQuatra's mother. "It was truly the work from the hand of God."

It was the performances themselves that amazed the judges, said Apryl Eshelman, director of institutional advancement at the DePaul School for Hearing and Speech, a school in Shadyside for children with hearing, speech and language impairments. It focuses on aural/auditory education, teaching deaf children to speak and understand oral language.

"The judges didn't even learn about her hearing loss until after the competition was over," she said. "They were even more impressed after that."

Thanks to a sophisticated hearing implant in 1996, LaQuatra can hear and react to others and her environment just like a normal youth. Cochlear implants are inserted into the inner ear to activate nerves, allowing sound to be transmitted to the brain.

After receiving a second implant less than a year later -- the first one failed -- LaQuatra attended an oral language program at the DePaul School to retrain her speech and language. She then mainstreamed into second grade at Hoover Elementary School from DePaul.

Eshelman said it is possible for children who have significant hearing impairment to develop strong spoken language skills if they are immersed from an early age in an oral language program. She explained that an oral language program encourages children to listen, to maximize the use of their residual hearing, to read the speech of others and to speak clearly.

Using an "auditory-oral" method, DePaul School for Hearing and Speech students develop the ability to speak. The students receive individual speech sessions, and during the school day, speech, language, auditory learning, and speech-reading/lip-reading are reinforced in each subject.

Students are mainstreamed into regular educational programs when they have developed the language, academic and social skills for

successful transition. Most students mainstream before their middle school years with no or minimal ongoing support, Eshelman said.

"Elena is a remarkable young lady," Eshelman said. "While many of the current and alumni students of DePaul have language skills equivalent to hers, Elena's drive and spirit are taking her to heights well beyond that of most children who have a hearing loss and well beyond that of most children who have normal hearing."

LaQuatra has not experienced any problems with her cochlear implant, but she does have to avoid going into water and also needs to change the batteries every two to four days.

"Sometimes, the batteries will just cut out at the absolute worst time, like during class," she said. "But other than that, I haven't had any problems."

LaQuatra tries to keep herself immersed in school and after-school activities.

"I enjoy performing," she said. "I like to dance, sing and play the drums."

Her interest in drums began during a school field trip two years ago to see the Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils Drumline perform at the high school. After meeting world-renowned deaf Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie at a fund-raiser a month later, she persuaded her parents to allow her to take drum lessons. She now is a member of the Mt. Lebanon Middle School Honors Percussion Ensemble.

LaQuatra hopes to continue to act and perform. LaQuatra and her older sister, Isabella, a freshman at Mt. Lebanon High School, acted in a 15-minute independent movie shot two years ago by a New York University film student for a class project. The film was about three British sisters. No problem. LaQuatra learned quickly to speak with a British accent.

LaQuatra returned to New York University this past weekend to record a voice-over for an animated short film for another student.

"She just continues to amaze us with her talent," Alexander said.

Copyright 2005 Tribune-Review Publishing Company