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April 14, 2005

My hearing is my hearing

From: Kansas City Star, MO - Apr 14, 2005

This typical teenager just happens to have a sign-language interpreter and a cochlear implant

By JOY MASON Special to TeenStar

As Stephen Persinger sets up his PowerPoint on the class computer, the rest of the American literature class chats behind his back. When he is ready, Stephen presents the information he has found on poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. To a person passing by the classroom, Stephen looks like any junior about to give a report. But what the passer-by can't know is that Stephen can't understand what his classmates are chatting about. In fact, it is only because of technology that Stephen can hear the words he speaks. Stephen is deaf. When Stephen was 9 months old, he developed meningitis, and the illness caused him to lose what are called hair cells in his inner ear, or cochlea, that help carry sound to auditory nerves. Without those hair cells, he couldn't hear. When he was 3, he underwent an operation in which doctors inserted what's called a cochlear implant.

Over his left ear he wears a crescent shaped device that serves as a microphone, picking up sound and turning it into electrical signals that pass through an electrode implanted in his cochlea. The device restores his hearing but only partly.

While the implant helps Stephen hear, it doesn't mean he can hear perfectly. A combination of the implant and his ability to read lips allows him to understand what people are saying. "When I look away from you," he said, "your words become blurry."

Stephen can hear his teachers talk, but in every class Stephen is provided with a sign-language interpreter who signs what people in the room are saying. In some cases this even includes gossip.

He usually works with two interpreters per day, although this varies. At times Stephen and his interpreter talk privately, but most of the time he pays more attention to the teacher.

One day during a science class, he explained, "If I miss something, I just look at the interpreter. If the teacher is doing something like the digestive system, I look at the teacher."

Stephen is a "mainstream" student. That means he is in classes with non-deaf students and takes no special classes for students who are deaf. Stephen is enrolled in challenging courses. He takes leadership, trig, American lit, American citizenship, AP chemistry, anatomy and physiology and research methods. Being deaf, however, does not really affect his academic life. "I consider myself a good student," he said. "I just want to get A's." He succeeds; his GPA is around 3.8. In his classes, Stephen doesn't talk much. "I'm pretty quiet by nature, especially at school," he said. For the most part, he limits his conversation to sign language between himself and his interpreter.

It's quite easy to mistake Stephen for someone who has perfect hearing. In addition to the implant, which allows him to hear without an interpreter, Stephen has had "years and years of practice" with a speech therapist. But sometimes when people find out that he is deaf, he says they begin to treat him differently.

"They sometimes talk louder or too slow. They overexaggerate." Stephen added, "Hearing people sometimes think it's hard to bring up my hearing, but I don't care. My hearing is my hearing. … I don't consider myself disabled to do anything."

Stephen doesn't let being deaf stop him from doing anything. At school he is involved in Science Olympiad and Winnetonka's student council. Outside of school, he does typical teenager activities: reads, chats, plays board games, swims and watches movies. He participates in events, like going to basketball games, with the Kansas School for the Deaf. "I hang out with deaf people most of the time. I prefer deaf people because I'm more comfortable in that situation, but some hearing people are fine, too."

His goals for the future include studying to be a forensic scientist, medical examiner or a video editor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. One of RIT's eight colleges is the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, which enrolls about 1,100 deaf and hard-of-hearing students and helps them live among the schools other 14,000 students. Stephen said: "My deafness isn't going to stop me. It might present some challenges, and I'll face them."

"(Being deaf) gives you a different view of life," Stephen said. "It's not a disability. There's nothing that deaf people can't do. It's just a different way of communication."

Then, too, Stephen has an advantage some people his age might envy: When his parents are talking, he can literally turn them off.

"I love it because you can sleep easier through the night. If my parents are yelling at me, I can turn it off," he said.

To reach Joy Mason, a senior at North Kansas City High, send e-mail to

© 2005 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.