The door to the conference room at Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital squeaks open as the audiologist slowly enters. “I’m afraid that your suspicions were correct,” she begins, addressing the young couple seated close to each other on the black vinyl sofa. “Our tests indicate that your daughter has a severe-to-profound bilateral hearing loss.”
Tears roll slowly down the mother’s cheeks, when she hears her fears abruptly turn to reality. “I knew it,” she murmurs, as her husband takes her hand.
“We’re here to assist you with every available resource,” the audiologist assures the parents. “There are some decisions to be made …”
Challenges permeate family life. Effective decision-making by parents oils household routines and keeps families running smoothly. Having a child with hearing loss, however, raises the stakes considerably, for the decisions parents make early on will unalterably influence their child’s passage through life.
Perhaps the toughest call parents of deaf children must make is the frequently debated, emotionally charged issue regarding a preferred method of communication.
For as long as worried parents have banged pots and pans and blown whistles behind their toddlers’ backs to test for hearing deficiencies, the issue of how deaf children should learn to communicate has stimulated spirited discussion. Opposing factions traditionally have drawn a line in the sand regarding alternatives.
On one side stands the deaf community, a culture that adamantly supports the use of American Sign Language with “total communication”—the simultaneous use of sign and speech, also frequently used. Entrenched on the opposite side are proponents of the auditory-oral method, which favors the use of speech and speech reading. “Oralists” often favor enhancing a deaf child’s acquisition of sound through a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted device that bypasses the damaged inner ear and stimulates the auditory nerve.
Deaf children often have difficulty crossing the line between the two ideologies. Peer and family pressures accompany the individual on every step of life’s ladder, and the consequences of this decision made early in a child’s life can last forever.
Hearing impaired people have always lived in Mt Lebanon. The DePaul Institute, a venerable school for the deaf that thrived in Mt. Lebanon from 1911 to 2002, stimulated an influx of deaf children and their families. More recently, Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3 administered a support program for deaf students in Mt. Lebanon High School. Thus, many Mt. Lebanon residents are familiar with sign language, hearing aids and cochlear implants.
Although neither DePaul nor the AIU unit remains in Mt. Lebanon, children with hearing loss continue to live here and attend neighborhood schools with their friends, where they receive the support necessary to negotiate mainstream education. Some use speech and speech-reading to communicate; others prefer to sign or use total communication. Regardless, one commonality unites them: The way they communicate is the result of a tough decision their parents made.
Except for the fact they cannot process sound as well as their peers, deaf children are not very different from their classmates and friends. They deserve love and respect. They crave the attention of their families and teachers. They need to learn, to grow physically and emotionally and to form healthy relationships. And they need to develop enough self-esteem to weather the storms of adolescence. The ability to communicate is critical to fulfilling these needs.
Parents know full well what is at stake, as they wrestle with their hearing impaired child’s communication issues.
I was stunned,” admits Joan Mackey, as she relives the day she and her husband, Paul, learned that their 15-month-old daughter was hearing impaired: “We were under the impression Kathleen’s auditory difficulties had resulted from a series of ear infections she had experienced. Each time an infection cleared up, we thought that she was out of the woods, that the problem had been resolved.”
Medical personnel suggested that the Mackeys explore sign language, but the determined parents had other ideas. “We set our sights on our daughter’s success in the hearing world without limitations,” Joan says. “We wanted her to reach her fullest potential academically and socially. Fulfillment and ultimate happiness were our goals.”
To this end, the Mackeys enrolled Kathleen in an auditory/oral program for deaf children where she flourished academically and socially. She developed communication skills that enabled her to eventually transition into Lincoln Elementary School.
The change in schools proved to be stressful for Kathleen, who was used to a small, self-contained learning environment with individualized lessons geared to the development of language and speech. With the help of welcoming classmates, well-prepared teachers, and hearing support specialists at Lincoln, Kathleen’s uneasiness quickly gave way to feelings of acceptance and belonging. Now on the verge of entering high school, Kathleen is thinking about attending college, following in the footsteps of her three older siblings.
When asked to describe their experience of raising a child with hearing loss, Joan Mackey responds without hesitation: “Blessings have come to the whole family because of Kathleen’s unique outlook on life. She is just so special …”
The reason for their son’s speech delay became such a concern to his parents, Eve and Matt Kollar, that relief tempered their initial disquietude when they discovered the cause to be hearing loss.
“When Gus was 23 months old, we were shocked but also relieved to find the reason for his speech delay. Now we could help him,” says Eve Kollar. Our immediate concern was to find a way to communicate with Gus. We wanted to make a communication decision and act.”
One week after being diagnosed, Gus entered an early-intervention program for deaf children, where he was introduced to sign language. To connect with their son and ease some of his frustrations, the Kollars quickly learned to sign through Community College of Allegheny County. By 30 months of age, Gus recognized 250 signs and the entire alphabet, enabling him to communicate well with his parents.
During the same period of time, Gus received hearing aids, then bilateral cochlear implants. At 28 months, he enrolled in an auditory-oral program where he improved his speech and language skills, and gained other academic proficiencies. He also participated in early-intervention activities at home, where he continued to develop his signing abilities.
“Gus became so proficient with sign language early on,” explains his father, “that we decided to continue to use it to help alleviate his frustrations and shape his behavior. We never signed without using speech, however.”
Although developing speech skills and signing abilities concurrently is considered to be difficult, the Kollars defied the odds and came out ahead. Gus has now completed kindergarten at Howe Elementary School, where he is recognized as a bright, confident, and friendly student.
“Gus reads several grade levels above average and is an excellent problem solver in math,” says his teacher, Mary Munson.
The Kollars are grateful for all the professional and personal assistance that has benefitted Gus. “It takes a village to raise any child successfully, especially a deaf child.”
It was so intense. We were dealing with all of the life-threatening effects of bacterial meningitis: the fever …the bilateral destruction of Elena’s vestibular system … all of it. She was very, very ill.
Deafness was only a part of it. We wanted our daughter to live …” The prayers of Paul and Effie LaQuatra were answered. Their 4-year-old daughter did survive the meningitis attack, although the disease left her with a profound hearing loss.
With the initial shock came the questions: How would deafness affect Elena? Would her world change radically? How would she communicate? Would she talk again? Should they learn to sign?
“Elena had always been a very outgoing, oral, language-oriented little girl,” says her father. “She was already performing at Mt. Lebanon’s Center for Theater Arts.”
Because Elena had a head start on speech and language development before she became ill and began adapting rapidly on her own by speech-reading her parents while still in the hospital, the LaQuatras’ decision was a foregone conclusion. “We were determined that Elena was going to use her oral strengths to operate as fully and as independently as possible in the hearing world. We did not want her to consider herself to be disabled or isolated in any way,” says Paul LaQuatra.
Because Elena had been very talkative before she became deaf, professionals recommended that she receive a cochlear implant and then be enrolled in an auditory-oral school. This, they suggested, would prepare Elena to function successfully in a mainstream environment.
The plan worked. After a successful experience at DePaul Institute, Elena went on to Hoover Elementary, Jefferson Middle, and Mt. Lebanon High School, where she was in the percussion ensemble and dance company. “We wanted Elena to enjoy the life that she was born to have,” her parents agree.
It seems that their wish has been granted. Elana was crowned Miss PA Teen in 2010, where “oral deaf education—turning a disability into an ability” was her platform. Currently, she is a happy, well-adjusted student at Point Park University who hopes to become a broadcast journalist.
“Elena has what we as parents would want her to have, a full life based upon her talents and skills,” says Effie LaQuatra. ‘Be what you want to be, with no limitations,’ we always said.’ ”
Mt. Lebanon residents Carol McCracken and Rich Viggiano partnered for many years as teachers of the deaf in the Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3 resource room formerly housed in the high school.
The program served teenagers from Mt. Lebanon and surrounding districts with varying degrees of hearing loss and diverse methods of communication.
“We grouped students with similar communication preferences: speech and speech reading …American Sign Language … signed English … total communication … whatever the student needed to learn,” says Viggiano. “We also matched interpreters to students’ communication needs. Then we exposed the students to new language and materials within various content areas.
“We did not want our students to stay clustered in a deaf peer group exclusively, “ he adds, “but to reach out, contact, and interact with mainstream classmates and the hearing world with whatever mode of communication they felt comfortable.”
Echoing his sentiments, McCracken adds, “Rich and I used every tool at our disposal, lip-reading, auditory training, speech, sign language—to develop in each individual a feeling of acceptance regardless of his or her preferred method of communication.
“Our job was to help our deaf students reach their individual potentials in our classroom, throughout the high school, and beyond. That’s what we were there to do.”
When the Intermediate Unit’s hearing impaired resource room was phased out in favor of itinerant teachers, McCracken and Viggiano worked in that capacity for a time before retiring.
Joseph Seifner, profoundly deaf from birth and raised in Mt. Lebanon, benefitted from McCracken and Viggiano’s open-minded and all-inclusive approach to deaf education.
When he was identified with a hearing loss at age two, his parents, Toni and Joe Seifner rejected the notion that their vivacious son might never be able to speak.
“We wanted Joe to have speech,” says his mother, “to communicate as well as possible in the hearing world. He was such an outgoing and social little boy… We hoped and prayed that he would be a talker.”
To this end, the Seifners enrolled their 2-year-old in a private preschool, where he began acquiring oral communication skills. At age 5, he entered an intense speech and language intervention program, where he remained for eight years. Well-prepared both academically and communicatively, Seifner enrolled in ninth grade at Mt. Lebanon High School, where in McCracken and Viggiano’s resource room, he met hearing-impaired students who were using various communication methods.
“I now had the best of both worlds,” says Seifner. “Not only could I speak effectively, but now I was able to acquire sign language. With this skill came many new deaf friends.”
Seifner graduated from high school and enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he majored in business administration/finance. While there, he met his future wife, Alicia Epstein, a deaf woman studying professional technical information. Having been educated at several traditional schools for the deaf, Epstein embraced American Sign Language early in life and still uses it as her primary tool for communication.
Epstein’s parents, Ann and Paul Epstein, explain why they decided to raise their daughter in a traditional signing environment: “We wanted Alicia to develop all that she possibly could. We wanted her to be able to communicate effectively. We were determined to surround our daughter with as many deaf role models as possible, so she would grow up knowing that there were many, many choices and opportunities ahead for her.”
Today, Seifner and Epstein are thriving. He works as a senior financial analyst at the National Institute of Health. His on-line sports and entertainment marketing venture is thriving, as is the National Deaf Poker Tour he co-sponsors. She travels the country as a senior manager for NISH, an organization that works to develop employment opportunities for people with disabilities, is a past president of the Maryland Association of the Deaf and an invitee to the Governor’s Advisory Council.
This couple’s personal and professional success demonstrates the potential for people with hearing loss to succeed regardless of their method of communication.
Like many other successful hearing-impaired people who have grown up in Mt. Lebanon, they also are grateful for the efforts of parents, doctors, audiologists, teachers, and a host of others who have assisted them on their way.
Note: Tom Hoag taught hearing impaired students at DePaul Institute for nearly 40 years. Joe Seifner, who is featured in this story, is his stepson.