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May 29, 2005

Luis' language

From: Myrtle Beach Sun News - Myrtle Beach,SC,USA - May 29, 2005

Luis Hernandez has never heard a conversation, but he's learning to communicate, one signed word at a time

By Sarah P. Kennedy
The Sun News

Luis Hernandez, 5, sits quietly at a table in the middle of the classroom with a big red pencil in his hand, focused intently on a worksheet containing words ending with "ot." Pot, hot, tot, cot, dot, knot. He looks at the pictures, the words, then writes each word twice.

Surrounding him is a cacophony of kid noise. Nineteen 4- and 5-year-olds play with puppets, puzzles, Legos and Play-doh. They are exuberant and noisy: talking, laughing, dropping toys on the floor, squealing with delight or outrage, making animal and truck noises.

Luis - a slight, neatly dressed boy with warm brown skin and big dark eyes that take in everything - doesn't hear any of it.

He was born deaf.

He looks up uncertainly at his interpreter, Westie Vaught, and asks a question with his hands about one of the "ot" words. She nods and praises him, signing, "Yes, that's right."

A small smile of satisfaction flickers across Luis' face before he returns to the serious schoolwork in front of him.

Luis is a student in Jamie Julian's self-contained hearing-impaired class at Homewood Elementary School in Conway. It's the only such class for preschoolers and elementary-school-age students in the Horry County school district.

What is remarkable about Luis is that he might not be learning at all were it not for his parents' efforts to ensure a normal life for him.

Luis' parents - Hortensia Leija Mate and her husband, Hector Hernandez, who have two other children - knew there were no school programs for deaf children in the town in Mexico where they lived. Hector had come to the Grand Strand for work in 2000, and in 2002 Hortensia made the hard decision to leave her home behind, packing up her life and her children to join her husband in the United States, where she knew there were special classes for hearing-impaired kids.

"We came here specifically for Luis," Hortensia said. "There are no schools like this in Mexico. ... There was no hope there."

Luis was enrolled in Julian's hearing-impaired class when he was 3.

Hortensia and Hector face a double challenge: They must learn English to get along in their daily lives, and they must learn sign language to communicate with Luis.

Hortensia attended a few sign language classes at Horry-Georgetown Technical College, and she studies using a large three-ring binder full of signs that Julian gave her. There is a drawing - with directional arrows indicating hand movement - of a person making each sign, and the word each sign represents. Hortensia has written the Spanish translation underneath or above many of the words in the book. In this way she learns English and sign language.

"It's two in one," Hortensia says.

She pats the book.

"This is Luis' voice. This is Luis' language," Hortensia says. "I have to know it or we won't be able to communicate."

At home, Hortensia says, Luis loves to watch movies even though he can't hear them. He loves actors Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. He has a favorite Scooby-Doo blanket, but he doesn't like being called a baby.

He likes Frisbee, riding bikes, playing video games, baseball and Spider-Man.

"He is normal. He plays, he runs around and everything. The only thing he can't do is hear," Hortensia says.

He's also picky. He doesn't like getting dirt on his clothes. He folds his bath towel when he's done with it.

"He's a perfectionist," Hortensia says. "When he eats, he likes a napkin, his glass, his plate, everything just so. When he's done, he always says, 'Thank you, Mom,'" Hortensia says as she makes the sign for "thank you" with her hands.

Luis' brother and sister - Hector, 9, and Ana, 11 - know a little sign language, but Luis' father doesn't know much.

"At home, Luis mainly communicates with me because his father doesn't know sign language," Hortensia says.

Her husband says it's difficult for him to find the time to learn sign language. He works long hours in construction, leaving the house before Luis gets up in the morning and coming home not long before dinner and Luis' bedtime.

From Mexico to Socastee

Before his family joined him in the United States, Hector was doing concrete work at the Camelot By the Sea hotel on Ocean Boulevard. On breaks he walked down to the Sunset Inn convenience store, and there he met and formed a friendship with the owners, April and Jim Dean.

"He would come in to buy drinks and sandwiches," April Dean says. "He'd come in for breakfast, he'd come in for lunch, he'd come in for his afternoon snack. He'd try to teach us a Spanish word, and we'd try to teach him English. ... He's such a good person."

When the Camelot was finished, Hector went to Charleston. He talked with the Deans every Sunday. During one conversation, April Dean noticed Hector sounded down and asked him about it. He finally told her he had been robbed, lost everything, including his paycheck. The Deans encouraged him to come back to the Myrtle Beach area and invited him to stay with them for a couple of weeks until he got back on his feet. The arrangement was so comfortable for everyone, Hector stayed 11 months. "He never asked for everything; we volunteered. We really enjoyed having him with us," April Dean says.

And when his wife and two children arrived, they all stayed with the Deans for two months before finding a place of their own in Socastee.

"We've taken them under our wings," April Dean says.

April Dean has accompanied Hortensia to meetings at Luis' school and Luis' doctor visits.

"I watch them all the time because I don't want any harm to come to them," April Dean says. "I've become almost a grandmother to them. Sometimes you just need a helping hand."

A chance for sound

Tommi Gray of Pee Dee Speech & Hearing in Myrtle Beach is Luis' audiologist. She says Luis might benefit from a cochlear implant, which is used to provide a sense of sound to those who are completely deaf or severely hard of hearing.

The cochlea is the spiral-shaped part of the inner ear and contains the cochlear nerve endings. Those nerves transmit impulses to the hearing center of the brain. A cochlear implant - which includes a microphone, speech processor, transmitter and receiver/stimulator, and electrodes - is surgically placed under the skin behind one ear. It is implanted in the person's worst ear because the surgery destroys the cochlea, thereby eliminating any hearing the person had in that ear.

The implant costs $26,000, Gray says, and the follow-up visits and speech therapy needed after the surgery cost $25,000.

Luis' family has no health insurance to cover the costs. Hortensia says she is trying to save money, and Gray says the family might be able to buy a private insurance policy, which could pay for the implant after the standard 12-month pre-existing-condition clause expires. Gray says she's also heard of doctors donating their services.

Even if the family finds a way to cover the cost, Gray is cautious about the outcome. The ideal age for the implant is 24 months, Gray says, because at that age a person can "catch up" in his speech development. With an implant, Luis still might sign, even though cochlear-implant recipients are discouraged from signing, Gray says.

Gray says Luis would hear with an implant at the level of someone with a mild hearing loss or better.

"He's really smart, so that is really in his favor," Gray says. "But he isn't aware of all the sounds around him. [With an implant], he's hearing like a newborn, so he has to discover all the sounds around him. He'd be six years behind in his development. ... With or without it, he's always going to be deaf. In your excitement, you think it's the perfect solution and it's not."

In the classroom

Luis has come a long way in school.

A lot of hearing-impaired children exhibit bad behavior, temper tantrums, out of frustration from not being able to communicate with their hearing families and others, Julian says, and Luis was no exception.

"When he first started, he had no language, no way to express himself," Julian says. "He had the worst temper tantrums I'd ever seen, hiding under tables. ... Once he got to the point of expressing himself, he chilled out."

At 10 a.m. each day, Luis spends an hour - Vaught by his side - in Lori Barker's regular-education child-development class.

Barker thinks it's a great idea.

"The younger the kids are when they are exposed to children with differences, the more accepting they're going to be," Barker says. "They realize that even though there are differences, they're really not different."

After eating lunch in the cafeteria with his hearing-impaired class, Luis rejoins Barker's class Monday through Thursday for art, music, physical education or library time.

On a recent day, he completes the "ot" word worksheet as other students play. When he's done, Luis looks around the room, checking out his options. He walks to a magnetic white board with letters of the alphabet randomly stuck to it. Vaught follows, and they begin spelling words.

A blond-headed boy named Chase joins the pair at the board. He speaks, verbally, to Luis. Vaught taps Luis on the shoulder until Luis looks at her, then repeats to Luis, in sign language, what Chase says. Luis doesn't respond, but the two boys move letters around the board companionably until Luis grows bored and moves on.

Luis plays cards with ponytail-on-top Brianna, sitting cross-legged on a colorful mat on the floor. Vaught sits on the floor with them, interprets with her hands what Brianna says to Luis and speaks aloud to Brianna as she signs what she's saying. Brianna's eyes stare in fascination at Vaught's hands, then her face, then her hands again as Vaught speaks two languages at once.

When another ponytailed girl wants to join in - "Tell him to give me a lot of cards," the girl says to Vaught - Luis abruptly makes the sign for "finished," stands up and walks away. Vaught stops him, says and signs, "Well, at least say goodbye." Luis waves briefly, then turns his back and heads to the puppet area.

Vaught explains in a whisper: "He doesn't play with her much because she bosses him."

Luis finds a wolf puppet. Vaught teaches him the sign for "wolf." Vaught slips on a green dinosaur puppet, and the two puppets begin to battle. Luis laughs without sound when the dinosaur tickles his neck.

"He's kind of shy," Vaught says of Luis. "My goal would be for him to understand the language for what he sees and for him to interact more with the other children, for them to communicate."

The bossy girl comes over and tries to take away a toy truck Luis has a hand on. Luis' face twists into a look of dismay, and he emits a small, short sound - part moan, part screech - as he turns to Vaught for help.

Luis knows the word for "voice" although he has never heard one, but he knows whatever he does that makes his throat vibrate gets him attention.

A power struggle is avoided when Barker flips off the classroom lights and announces it's time to clean up. The lights come back on as children scurry to throw books, dolls and other toys back into their plastic tubs.

Luis and Vaught walk back to Julian's classroom. Along the way, Luis points at objects he doesn't know the words for - door lock, doorstop, emergency exit sign - then looks expectantly at Vaught, who signs and says the word.

When sign language doesn't provide a distinct word for something, such as "doorstop," Vaught improvises. She signs the noun "door" and the verb "stop."

Luis nods, curiosity temporarily satisfied, and student and teacher continue down the hall.

The future

Nicole Bitner, another interpreter in Jamie's classroom, says Luis is behind in his language development, but she isn't worried. "He'll be OK because he's very smart and catches on very quickly."

Julian expects to have Luis and his classmates in her classroom through the fifth grade. She wants to see them in regular-education classes as much as possible, but she says they will continue to need help with understanding vocabulary.

"Their communication skills will always be impaired," Julian says. "I can't make up for what they don't have, but I can make it better."

Julian's goal is to see Luis live his life and be treated like everyone else.

"I see for him what any teacher would see for one of their students. It's not any different because he's hearing impaired," Julian says. "I want him to grow up and be as independent he can, to know the harder he works, the further he will go ... for him to grow up and be able to do anything he wants to do. I want him to grow up and enjoy life and to keep his curiosity. That, in my mind, will help him go further than anything else."

Contact SARAH P. KENNEDY at or 444-1718.

© 2005 The Sun News and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.