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

But like Ashley Yount, most deaf children are born to hearing parents -- parents who naturally want to raise their child in their own culture. Hearing parents are far more likely to push their deaf child to learn language via "the oral method" -- lip-reading and speech -- and to place their child in a mainstream school.

The oral method outrages many in the Deaf community -- some of them self-proclaimed "victims of the oral regime" whose "audist" parents forced them to struggle to make sense of spoken language, no matter how little success they had. Among the Deaf, the stigma against hearing parents is commonplace. For instance, the magazine Deaf Life attempts to educate hearing relatives and friends of the Deaf with a column called "For Hearing People Only"; the column answers questions such as "Why do most deaf parents raise a hearing child better than hearing parents raise a deaf child?"

Activists such as Harlan Lane argue that all deaf children should learn American Sign Language -- a full-fledged language and the cornerstone of Deaf culture -- rather than endure the extreme difficulties of lip reading and speech. For the same reasons, mainstreaming rates high on the Deaf's list of evils: Placing a deaf kid in a hearing school, they argue, isolates the child, cutting him off from deaf friends and Deaf culture, and forcing him into a world that will never accept his unnatural-sounding speech and limited comprehension. When the child finally can choose for himself, if he wants to leave the hearing world for the Deaf, it may already be too late: He won't know sign language, or he won't sign fluently. Even surrounded by people whose hearing is no better than his own, he'll be an outsider.

Most vehemently, Deaf activists oppose the hearing parents who give their children cochlear implants, "bionic ears" that simulate hearing. Deaf activists equate the devices with genocide. In his book The Mask of Benevolence, Lane writes: "Even if we could take children destined to be members of the African-American, or Hispanic-American, or Native American, or Deaf American communities and convert them with bio-power into white, Caucasian, hearing males -- even if we could, we should not."

Demographics make the "genocide" argument all the more pressing: As more kids are being mainstreamed, and fewer kids are born deaf, there are simply fewer people eligible to carry on Deaf culture. Between 1984 and 1994, Gallaudet University's annual survey of deaf children showed that the number of students with a severe-to-profound hearing loss decreased by a staggering 26 percent.

To flourish, Deaf culture must recruit kids like Ashley Yount -- and convince parents like Julie and Greg to turn their child over to a world very different from their own.

Shortly after Ashley was diagnosed, Texas Children's Hospital gave Julie a workbook, You and Your Hearing Impaired Child. It explained the stages of grief that parents experience. On one page, Julie highlighted the words shock, denial, sadness, guilt and bewilderment.

Beside a list of emotions, the book instructed the parent to record her responses. For depression, Julie wrote, "I cry and mope." Anger: "I lash out or hold it in until I almost burst." Loneliness: "I get on the phone and call everyone I know." Helplessness: "Pray." (Denial was Greg's specialty. For months, when Julie wasn't looking, he'd test Ashley by making a sound of some sort, to see whether she'd turn around.)

On one page of the workbook, Julie wrote a letter for Ashley to read when she was older. In it, Julie explained how she felt when she found out that Ashley was deaf. "I felt so negligent that at ten and a half months I just now suspected something. I felt so helpless and blameful -- that God was punishing me .... I'm so sorry, Ashley! I want you to feel my deep love and to know you will be able to hear and that I will do everything and anything to make it happen!"

She signed the letter, "Sincerely, Mommy."
Julie tortured herself, wondering whether the deafness was somehow her fault. Had she dropped Ashley? What medicines had she taken while she was pregnant? And what about that time she'd fallen asleep with Ashley, and Ashley had tumbled out of the bed?

The hospital gave Julie a list of people to call, most of them other parents of deaf children. She called every person on the list, and felt reassured by all but one: a Houston mother who said, "Grieve now. Your daughter will never talk like hearing children." Julie didn't call her again.

On lined notebook paper, she wrote lists of questions to take to the doctor, and also wrote his responses. She kept her notes, all of them, in three-ring binders. Eventually, they'd fill an entire shelf in her dining room.

Julie and Greg decided firmly against sign language. They wanted Ashley to understand speech and to be able to speak. They found it hard to imagine a sign-language life for her, or to picture her as part of a community they couldn't fathom, cut off from the comforting hubbub of everyday talk. They decided to try the oral method for two years; if it failed -- and they knew it might -- they'd consider sign.

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