Ashley Yount Can't Hear You

When their daughter was ten months old, Julie and Greg Yount learned that she was profoundly deaf -- a diagnosis that forced them to confront profound questions of culture and identity

Julie Yount lugged clean laundry into her son's room, where her daughter, ten-month-old Ashley, was playing. Ashley didn't turn around, but Julie chattered baby talk anyway as she loaded Blake's clothes into his bureau. Life was good: Julie liked this new house in Beaumont, so far out in the country that raccoons waddled through the back yard. She'd finally finished unpacking and was beginning to feel settled; the kids were, for the moment, happy; the clothes were fresh-smelling and warm from the dryer.

Then, suddenly, Ashley caught sight of Julie. And startled, she began to wail.

Julie was even more startled. Ashley, she realized, hadn't heard her.
On the phone, Greg, Julie's husband, told her that she was making a mountain out of a molehill: Ashley was fine.

Julie prayed that he was right.

A few days later Greg's mom, Earlene Yanaczo, drove Julie and Ashley to Houston. For the mission, Earlene also enlisted Greg's aunt Jeanette Graves. Earlene, a high-maintenance blond, had spent hours on the phone with Julie, and knew she needed all the moral support she could get.

Ashley had an appointment with audiologists at Texas Children's Hospital. Testing an infant's hearing is tricky; you can't just tell a baby to say "now" when she hears a sound. For the first test, the audiologists had Ashley sit in Julie's lap. When they played a sound, a puppet would appear; the idea was to teach Ashley to look for the puppet whenever she heard something. Eventually, they played softer and softer sounds, to gauge what Ashley would respond to.

After that test, the audiologists told Julie not to worry, that Ashley's hearing seemed fine. Maybe she just had a little fluid in her ears, they said. Nothing to worry about.

For the first time in days, Julie felt hope.
Just in case they'd missed something, the audiologists wanted an ABR -- an Aided Brainstem Response test. They taped pads all over Ashley's head and chest. The pads were connected to a monitor that graphed brain waves -- "just like a heartbeat," Julie thought. Then everyone waited for Ashley to fall asleep, so they could tell whether her sleeping brain registered sound.

For what seemed like hours, Julie sat watching Ashley sleep, and watching one of the audiologists monitor Ashley's brain waves. Eventually, that audiologist called another into the room, to double-check her result.

The news wasn't good. Somehow -- perhaps by picking up Julie's unconscious physical cues -- Ashley had faked the first test. Gently, the audiologists told Julie that the ABR showed that Ashley had a significant hearing loss. She was deaf.

Julie clenched her hands into fists and cried. She felt numb. She heard bits and pieces of what the audiologist said: something about how the ear works, something about therapy and follow-up.

There was more, and there would be much more later, when Julie could absorb it. Over the next two years, she'd fill binders with notes. She'd talk with people who passionately believed they knew how Ashley should be educated -- and to other people whose beliefs were just as passionate, but completely the opposite. Later, she'd learn the jargon -- phrases like "ASL" and "cochlear implant" -- and the strong feelings those words can evoke. Later, she and Greg would make hard decisions. Later.

But just now, Julie was trying to adjust to the idea that Ashley's world would be radically different than her own.

That night, back in Beaumont, Greg's shock registered as disbelief, a classic example of denial. "I don't see why you all are making such a big deal about this," he told Julie and Earlene.

Julie went outside and sat alone in the big back yard. She listened to the wind, and the crickets, and all the tiny night sounds. And she cried again, because Ashley would never hear them.

With Ashley's diagnosis, Julie and Greg were thrust onto the front lines of a cultural war they'd hardly known existed. They'd never realized that there's a difference between being deaf (that is, unable to hear) and Deaf, with a capital D, an active participant in Deaf culture. Ashley had been born deaf; but she -- and her parents -- would choose whether she became part of the Deaf world, or attempted to live among the hearing.

Many Deaf activists argue that the culturally Deaf should not be considered hearing people who have lost that sense, but as a linguistic minority, entitled to self-determination. Deafness, as they see it, is not a pathology to be cured; it is a rich culture, with its own language. I. King Jordan, the president of Gallaudet University, was once asked by a 60 Minutes reporter whether he'd like to have his hearing back. "That's almost like asking a black person if he would rather be white," Jordan replied. "I don't think of myself as missing something or as incomplete."

Of course, there's an obvious difference between a racial minority and the Deaf: Black children are born to black parents, and they learn about their culture from their families. Sometimes this happens in the Deaf world: A deaf couple will have a deaf child, and the child acquires sign language as naturally as a child born to Mexican parents learns Spanish. In the Deaf world, it's a badge of honor to be "Deaf of Deaf" -- that is, deaf and raised by deaf parents.

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