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December 31, 2006

A chatterbox with her hands, Hannah takes on the world

From: Orlando Sentinel - Orlando,FL,USA - Dec 31, 2006

Kate Santich | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted December 31, 2006

When we last saw Hannah Foley in early February, she was a baby in a confusing world. Born with a severe hearing impairment and balance difficulties, Hannah had seemed to master only one sign: the word mine.

But Hannah's parents, Doug and Naomi Foley of Orlando, had already spent three months in sign-language class, hoping to build a bridge to their daughter's silent world. What was most unusual, though, was their extended family's response.

Soon, Naomi's parents, brothers and sisters joined the class. And her aunt. And a cousin. And a brother's girlfriend. Doug's father, a pastor in Deltona, came whenever he was in town. Doug's mother, a teacher near Atlanta, bought videos to learn sign language at home with her husband.

Today, Hannah is a baby no longer. At 20 months, she's a perpetual-motion machine who can sign about 175 words and put together short sentences.

She points to a plastic slide her parents have erected in the family room. "I ride this," she signs.

Her 27-year-old father beams.

"It feels like we can just be a family now," Doug says.

Naomi, 25, nods. "Things were pretty scary for a while," she says. "Now, all this is normal for us."

In April, Hannah underwent surgery in Miami to repair a tiny hole in the back of her ear canal. While she was in the hospital, doctors evaluated her potential to receive cochlear implants, which can offer limited, rudimentary hearing.

For months, some experts had lectured the Foleys to stop teaching their daughter sign language on the chance that she could get the implants. Sign language, they said, would become a crutch during years of therapy to teach the girl to distinguish sounds, read lips and speak.

"It seemed kind of cold -- to just suddenly shut your child out after they've already been signing to you for a while," Doug says. "And there would be no guarantees the implant would work."

As it turned out, Hannah lacks necessary auditory nerves needed for the cochlear surgery. Her family's insistence on learning sign had been a blessing.

Though the child got a slow and somewhat rocky start, her development in language and motor skills has caught up to that of her hearing peers. In certain ways, she has even surpassed them.

"She's just a neat, fun, lovable kid, and she loves to jump and move," Doug says. "When she gets a little older, we're probably going to enroll her in gymnastics."

© 2007, Orlando Sentinel