"Just before Christmas a specialist told us that our nine-month-old child has a profound hearing loss," writes a mother in Chevy Chase.
"After getting over the first shock waves, we began exploring those three different methods of speech for the deaf you talked about in your column on Jan. 17, but there seems to be a lot of disagreement about what's best."
A. Let's start with the most well-known: sign language. It uses hand signals to telegraph an idea, but it's complicated because there are six different vocabularies in the U.S. alone. The signals, however, are only part of the package called "total communication," which includes finger spelling, or a signed alphabet; auditory training, to help a child listen better; lipreading and speech training.
The most demanding method is surely oralism, which trains a child to function in a hearing world. Here he is taught to listen as well as he can, to lipread and to pronounce maybe two words a week, or a month -- whatever is realistic. Some parents think this requires a child to spend so much time working with his handicap that there is little time left to play, while others are strong, strong advocates. The alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, 3417 Volta Pl. NW, is in the forefront of this movement.
Finally, there is cued speech, which combines oralism will still another sign language -- this one based on phonics. Here the fingers make signs, or cues, near the mouth to emphasize the speech and to make lipreading clearer, since less than 50 percent of all words can be lipread. By teaching the child to use language, rather than send messages, the vocabulary can be much bigger, and by having a cue for each sound, a child can learn to communicate in any language.
This method is used in a highly successful pre-school program at the National Child Research Center (NCRC), 3209 Highland P. NW. Seven children, most with profound hearing losses, go to classes with 113 hearing children, between mid-Two and Six.
The experiment is co-sponsored by the District's Kendall Demonstration Elementary School at a cost to them of $6,000 per child, compared to the usual $15-20,000 in a day school for the deaf.
Although the NCRC was set up to do innovative reseach 50 years ago, you don't get the sense of a lab school there.
Under the direction of Emily MacCormack, it is a relaxed, low-key sort of place, where self-sufficiency is stressed, simply by expecting it. This, alone, makes it an especially good school for hearing-impaired children, for adults so often want to do too much for them. There is also a parent-infant program which would prepare your baby for the school.
"It's more important for hearing-impaired children to have pre-school education than for hearing kids," says Kendall-NCRC director Terry Von den Bossche Klein. "These are the critical years of language development.
"The whole problem with deafness is this: It's like being in a foreign country all the time. You don't know what anyone is saying."
So far the six graduates of the program have been mainstreamed into public and private schools with teachers who have learned to cue. Two children are in gifted reading programs, two are above grade level and two are on grade level -- a marked contrast to the majority of the deaf, who says Klein, stay on a third- or fourth-grade reading level.
"Cued-speech kids move faster. They can use complicated tenses and talk about abstract ideas and feelings. If you pour in communication with cued speech for a couple years, the kids take off. You give children the tool, by giving them the language."
The children work with klein and her staff, learning not only cues but how to breathe correctly, following the precise breakdowns of sound as taught by Danile Ling of McCall University, "the guru of oralism," says Klein.
"If a child can see where the sound goes in the mouth, he can repeat the motion in his mouth."
The children begin in the parent-infant program run by Mary Lou Barwell, who has taught all three methods and enthusiastically prefers this one.
Barwell goes to the child's home first for evening sessions with the parents, telling them what to expect of their child, what deafness means, and how the child needs the parents to talk to them with words and with cues. Although it takes parents only about 15 hours to learn cued speech, they need practice to be fluent, so Barwell spends a lot of time helping them cue and often brings cueing paretns to help.
Barwell also works with the child for an hour a week, helping him adjust to the hearing aid and teaching him how to read lips and cue. The child gets more special tutoring at school before being mainstreamed into the regular classes, where all of these teachers also cue.
As for the "hearing kids," the program does "nothing but good," says Barwell.
"They may not be able to empathize completely, but the exposure is terrific."