When Alex Hernandez’s newborn baby failed her hearing screening 15 years ago, he wasn’t overly concerned and neither were doctors. Alex received a pamphlet from Lily’s pediatrician who encouraged the family to visit a specialist. Initially, Alex thought it was a situation they could wait out to see how Lily’s hearing developed before considering the next steps. Now, he’s incredibly grateful the professionals with Hearts for Hearing, then called Hearing Enrichment Language Program (HELP), encouraged him to seek a solution immediately.
“They advised us to get hearing aids so she could get sound right away,” remembers Alex. “There is a short window for kids to make that connection in their brain with language and hearing. She needed to have that stimulation to that part of her brain … without them, we would have lost valuable time.”
Morgan Young passed her newborn hearing screening 13 years ago, but her parents realized she was having trouble hearing around age 2 when they called her name and she didn’t respond until they touched her arm, causing her to flinch. Morgan’s mom, Maria, also has hearing loss and immediately scheduled an assessment for her daughter. Within a month, Morgan had hearing aids and was enrolled in Happy Hands Education Center in Tulsa, along with her brother Clay, who had failed his newborn hearing screening, as well as their typically-hearing brother Joseph. At the school for children with hearing loss or communication disorders, the Young kids all learned sign language and received the support they needed to prepare for mainstream school.
“When Happy Hands did the first assessment of [Morgan’s] learning capabilities at 2 years old she was like a 5-month-old because she hadn’t been hearing anything,” said dad Michael Young. “They kept working with her, on sign language and learning to speak, and she made so much progress that by 5 years old she was learning at a 6-year-old level.”
For parents, there’s much more to learning a child has hearing loss than finding the right accommodations for that child.
“When parents find out at the newborn hearing screening [that a child has hearing loss], they may go through a range of emotions before they get to the most important question: ‘How am I going to give this child what they need to thrive?’” said Lesa Carter, educational consultant for students with hearing loss for Mustang Public Schools.
Whether a child experiences hearing loss from birth or later in life, the communication options available to them and their families are numerous and potentially overwhelming. Carter shared that, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 90 percent of children born deaf are born to hearing parents, who may have little to no experience with the varied options available to their child. Making what feels like a lifetime decision for a child can be daunting.
“Some kids flourish with cochlear implants, some with hearing aids, some with American Sign Language or the cultural influence of the Deaf community,” said Carter.
The bottom line, says Carter, is children need language in some form as early as possible because it’s the foundation for learning, reading, relationships and so much more. Consulting a child’s pediatrician, local resources like the Oklahoma School for the Deaf, public schools, parent support groups and organizations like Hearts for Hearing can help in gathering information and perspective, as well as preparing a child for school.
“Since the newborn screening protocol became law in Oklahoma in 2000, and updated in 2006, children are getting hearing aids at just a few months old, giving them greater access to sound and speech,” said Carter. “Just as important, children with profound hearing loss whose parents sign to them in infancy can make their first sign around 7 months old. All of this leads to a better foundation for learning.”
In Edmond Public Schools, the district’s 90 students who have hearing loss use varied and oftentimes multiple communication tools. The district once offered an immersive deaf education program with one elementary teacher for all students with hearing loss, but Nancy Goosen, newly retired as director of special services for EPS, said when she joined the district 22 years ago, the program led to disparities so she advocated to mainstream students.
“I do not want to dismiss the advantages of the full immersion model of a deaf education program like the Oklahoma School for the Deaf where they have a stronger program with teachers at every grade level,” said Goosen. “It just was not working for us. After meeting with the students, I believed they needed the opportunity to achieve deeper levels of learning in a regular education environment with their same grade level peers than placed in one special education classroom with multiple grade levels. Of course, if any student needs additional special education support, the IEP team makes that placement decision on an individual basis.”
Now EPS focuses on meeting students’ needs by providing individualized accommodations, like deaf interpreters, sound field systems in all classrooms, personal FM units that connect those systems to students’ receivers in their hearing aids or cochlear implants and deaf education teachers and coordinators to work with students, teachers and parents.
As students with hearing loss prepare for life after high school, Lisa Barnum, deaf educator with EPS, helps them learn to advocate for themselves, understand what accommodations are available to them in the workplace, college or career tech programs and how to request those services.
“Our students should be viewed as a regular education student first,” said Goosen, “and then as an individual with a disability who needs accommodations or other types of special education services based on their unique needs to benefit from instruction and be academically successful.”
Now a 15-year-old sophomore at Harding Charter Preparatory High School, Lily loves learning TikTok dances, spending hours at the dinner table laughing and talking with her family and running track and cross country.
Lily received her first pair of hearing aids at age 3 months, though by age 3 she had become profoundly deaf, at which point she received bilateral cochlear implants.
“Making the decision to have the surgery was huge,” said Alex.
He worried how Lily would be received, or bullied, by her peers because of the implants. Alex also researched what the speech of kids who had cochlear implants sounded like.
“I knew she would be able to hear and talk, but I thought she would have a speech impairment,” said Alex.
In hindsight, Alex recognizes Lily’s “spicy” moods as a toddler were because she was frustrated. She couldn’t communicate what she wanted. While remembering the rawness of his fear and worry is still painful, now when he looks at his daughter, he, and Lily, can say with assurance the implants were the right choice for their family.
“Her speech just picked up and it was incredible the progress she made in a short time, cognitively and with language,” said Alex. “I would have never dreamed Lily would sound like she does … like a typically-hearing child.”
When Lily was younger, her cochlear implants were visible and she often received questions or curious glances, especially from other kids. Though the models she has now aren’t visible, at the time, she embraced opportunities to share her experiences with others and explain her cochlear implants.
“I love when parents would let their kids come up to Lily and say ‘what is that,’ to not treat the equipment on Lily’s head like something we had to ignore,” said Alex. “Let your kid be curious and ask questions.”
Through the Hearts for Hearing Bridges program, a mixture of children who can hear unaided and those with hearing loss come together to celebrate their differences and see each other thriving in their own unique ways.
“It ends this stigma of dividing between aided and unaided, and it’s important to do that,” said Lily.
Lily also attended Hearts for Hearing camp each summer with other children who are deaf or have hearing loss.
“It’s really cool because we all share the same experiences because we’re all deaf but we can hear and talk to each other,” said Lily.
Though Lily laughingly says Hearts for Hearing has “kicked her out” because she no longer needs speech therapy or other services beyond annual mapping, her stepmom Amy, marketing and communication strategist for Hearts for Hearing, says the staff still know Lily well, sharing funny stories or sweet memories about her from her time as a patient and before Amy knew her.
“The goal is by the time a kid is school-age that they are good to go, but there’s definitely that atmosphere where you’re always part of the family,” said Amy.
As Amy and Alex began dating and then married four years ago, Amy has been especially grateful for the bond she and Lily have developed, from learning TikTok dances together to spending hours talking, and she recognizes that Lily’s cochlear implants have played a huge role in the two bonding so quickly. It’s also been instrumental in Lily creating a special relationship with her 18-month-old sister Hazel. The two love to play music together, along with Lily’s sister Violet, 11, and brother Ethan, 18.
“Lily doesn’t consider herself any different from other kids, and that’s really the best way to articulate the difference cochlear implants have made in her life,” said Amy.
Morgan and Clay’s story
Michael and Maria Young were intent upon providing their children a foundation in language and learning from a very young age so they wouldn’t potentially spend their entire academic careers behind, which is why they were fast acting in getting Morgan, Clay and Joseph enrolled at Happy Hands. Michael was amazed at the progress Morgan made in three short years there before she entered Edmond Public Schools for kindergarten. Now in the eighth grade, Morgan is at the top of her class, plays softball, loves to read and write and aspires to become an actress. She recently gave a speech at a Happy Hands anniversary gala to commemorate the school’s impact on her life.
While Morgan didn’t need or receive accommodations until age 2, Clay’s experience was more typical for a child with hearing loss because he received hearing aids at just 4 months old and was immersed in Happy Hands school immediately. Clay, who is in the sixth grade, is an 80s rock music aficionado, loves video games and hopes to play football.
Both Morgan and Clay make use of an American Sign Language interpreter in their classes, an accommodation provided by EPS. A single interpreter travels with a student from class to class, often over the course of several school years. All students who have hearing loss or any other disability have an IEP team that includes parents, speech or other therapists, teachers or administrators and their interpreter if they make use of one, all working together throughout the school year to define goals and ensure students received services needed.
In the case of children who have hearing loss, EPS will provide and/or accommodate whatever mode of communication the child prefers. Though his kids have been in Edmond schools for nearly a decade, Michael still finds it hard to put into words how much the support and resources have meant to his family, from interpreters and classroom amplification and sound systems to regular progress updates and yearly meetings to assess new or changing needs.
“I think of not only my own kids but all the other parents getting this same level of commitment and support in EPS,” said Michael.
Because Morgan has spent her entire academic career in EPS, with many of the same students in her classes, most don’t notice her interpreter or other accommodations anymore. In the instances where another student has asked her interpreter a question about her, the interpreter always directs that student to ask Morgan themselves.
“Some people at school know why I have an interpreter, other people are curious and ask questions and some people want to know more sign language,” said Morgan.
Before the pandemic, one of Morgan’s teachers invited her to start an ASL class for other students.
“The most important thing was that Ms. Stevenson asked me to teach the class; it’s neat that they acknowledge me with a disability,” said Morgan.
Clay self-admittedly doesn’t rely on his interpreter as much as his sister, both because his hearing loss is not as profound and because he is sometimes self-conscious. Clay went through a period where he was removing his hearing aids once at school and not interacting with his interpreter at all.
“People were making fun of me,” said Clay, who worked up the courage after several semesters to stand up to the bullies. “They rethought it and walked away. Over time people started being nicer. But I still lived through that pain of being made fun of.”
Rachel Sell, special education teacher consultant with EPS, said kids who have any equipment or qualities that make them visibly different from other students often struggle with those differences, and like in Clay’s case, pre-teen boys especially dislike anything that makes them stand out. As Michael reminds his children that often those who are picking on them are insecure or have their own problems they are trying to mask, he also finds reassurance that the older and more mature they get, they more self-assured they become, able to shrug off what other people think or say.
“What I hope parents and other students realize is there is nothing wrong with these kids,” said Michael. “There’s no reason to treat them any differently.”
Sell says the best part of her job is seeing students who have hearing loss succeed and compete at the same level as other kids, oftentimes thanks in part to the accommodations she and the district can provide. Being around typically-developing kids helps them believe in their own abilities to meet academic standards; and typically-developing kids gain empathy and understanding that will benefit them in life.
“Mainstreaming any child with any need outside of the norm helps other students realize there are other people in the world,” said Sell.
The normalization of ASL in the classroom, interpreters and other accommodations often inspires typically-hearing students to learn ASL, sometimes becoming deaf educators just like in Carter’s case, and teachers to incorporate ASL into everyday lessons.
“There is a stigma of being aided, and we need more visibility and people not being ashamed of having hearing aids,” said Alex.