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June 12, 2006

Cochlear implants changing Park District's 'Camp Sign'

From: Chicago Sun-Times, United States - Jun 12, 2006


Historically, day camps for deaf kids are rather quiet places. When a soccer goal is scored, for example, the players don't applaud -- they wave their hands and wiggle their fingers.

That's changing, though, as more deaf and hard of hearing children are being equipped with cochlear implants, a surgically implanted device that allows them to "hear" through electrical impulses.

When Sarah B. Faber joined the Chicago Park District nine years ago, only a couple of kids in the district's summer day camp program for deaf and hard of hearing children had the implants. Today, about half of the 70 youngsters who attend the three park district summer camps wear them, said Faber, the district's program specialist for deaf and hard of hearing.

'Deaf identity'

"We still sign; I don't want to turn the camps into hearing camps. But we use voice more now," said Faber, referring to the hand gesture-based language deaf people commonly use.

In fact, the camps -- at McFetridge Sports Center at 3843 N. California, Wentworth Park at 5625 S. Mobile and Foster Park at 1440 W. 84th -- still carry the name "Camp Sign."

Faber, who lost much of her hearing during a childhood illness and is considering having a cochlear implant herself, says the goal of the camp -- as well as the other deaf-focused, district programs that focus on arts, sports, dancing and the teen club -- is to "build up their self-esteem so they feel like they can do anything in the hearing world."

"We're born into the hearing world and we have to survive there," said Faber, 39.

Faber must navigate a tightrope in the deaf community. Though more than 100,000 adults and children worldwide now have the implants, according to the National Institutes of Health, some deaf people feel medical advances may squash the teaching of American Sign Language and threaten "deaf identity."

The issue erupted this year when some students at Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C.-based deaf institution, protested the appointment of Jane K. Fernandes as its new president. Though deaf, Fernandes grew up speaking and reading lips, attended mainstream schools and universities and only as an adult learned to sign. Fernandes told National Public Radio that the objections are part of "identity politics about who is deaf and who can speak to deaf people."

Jacob Hickey, 23, a Camp Sign counselor who wears hearing aids, speaks clearly and uses sign language, finds the issue tiresome.

What's most important is developing social skills because deafness can be isolating, he said. When Hickey was a child, the nearest deaf person lived two hours a way.

In the district's programs, Faber has organized trips to McDonald's so the young deaf people can practice ordering. They've navigated the CTA. In the camps for the deaf and hard of hearing, for those with implants or not, instructions are given at a slower pace, she said.

'Restrain independence'

There are still openings for this summer's camps, she said. "Unfortunately, not a lot of people know what's available," Faber said. Other parents are hesitant about sending their children: sometimes they are so "concerned with their child's disability that they. . . restrain independence," added Hickey.

As a child, North Sider Cristina Matei, now 19, attended one of Faber's first camps. She had gone to camps for hearing kids before but found "it was a struggle" because she didn't understand much of what was being talked about, she said.

This summer she'll work with kids alongside Faber -- a bridge of sorts. Since first attending camp as a kid, she's been equipped with cochlear implants and both signs and speaks vocally.

For her, the camps gave her confidence, she said.

Camp Sign runs from June 28 through Aug. 8. Open to kids ages 6 to 10, it costs $210. For more information on park district programs, see or call (312) 742-PLAY.

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