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

Beaumont didn't offer much in the way of oral training, but Houston was a hotbed of it. With its love of technology and determination to assimilate all comers, Houston is Deaf culture's nightmare. The Houston Ear Research Foundation, headed by Dr. Edward Maddox, puts cochlear implants in more children than any other group in North or South America. Some of Houston's implanted children are related to the city's movers and shakers: one is the son of Houston Councilman Rob Todd; another is Marvin Zindler's grandson.

In Houston, oral education's headquarters are at the Center for Hearing and Speech, a collection of one-story buildings at the intersection of Shepherd and West Dallas. It's one of 24 oral programs in the United States. (Only one other, in San Antonio, is in Texas.) About 100 kids attend the Center's classes; the kids range from three-year-olds up through third grade. Many more come for therapy, some from even farther than Beaumont. Some of the kids are hearing-impaired; others, language-delayed. Many have cochlear implants.

Assuming that a child succeeds with the oral method -- and the Center is careful to point out that not all of them do -- she's expected to move into mainstream schools and, eventually, into a life not defined chiefly by deafness. Since the Center was founded in 1947 as the Houston School for Deaf Children, it's scored some impressive successes: Alumni have graduated at the heads of their high school classes and from top universities; one is a lawyer; another, a business consultant; one even plays percussion with an orchestra.

Ashley was too young for daycare classes, but twice a week, she and Julie drove to Houston for special sessions with therapist Nan Thompson. Ashley was fitted with hearing aids, and Nan -- a fizzy blond with a teenager's energy and optimism -- began training Ashley to listen for loud sounds and respond to them, so that the Center could refine its assessment of her hearing. The Texas Children's Hospital audiologists had only been able to say that Ashley's loss was somewhere between "severe" and "profound" -- but at the Center, there was a world of difference between the two categories. If the loss were merely severe, Ashley's hearing aids might allow her to learn to speak. If the loss were profound, the prognosis became far more grim.

Some weeks, Julie stayed to attend the Center's support-group meetings, where she compared notes with other parents of deaf children. Many parents, she found, were even more radically opposed to sign language than she and Greg were. One mother inveighed against sign, saying that it would only make a deaf child lazy, giving her an easy out when she wanted to communicate. That mother pointed to the success of her own profoundly deaf daughter: One of the Center's success stories, the teenager held a job at the Gap in Highland Village, would be attending Sam Houston State in the fall and -- the surest proof of assimilation into the hearing world -- had a hearing boyfriend.

Julie yearned for similar success. She fixed a scene in her mind, a small but faraway goal: Someday, she wanted Ashley to order her own burger at McDonald's.

Julie preferred the oral method, but she wasn't a purist; she figured Ashley should have every educational opportunity available. A month after Texas Children's diagnosed Ashley, Julie contacted the Deaf Co-op, run through the Beaumont school system. The two-year-old program dispatches teachers to the homes of deaf kids, to help teach both the kids and their parents, starting as soon as deafness is diagnosed. Carol Rouly, one of the program's two founding teachers, went to the Younts' house to assess Ashley.

Beaumont is home to an active Deaf community. Lamar University -- a stronghold of American Sign Language -- offers an undergraduate major in Deaf Education, plus a master's in Deaf Studies/Habilitation and a doctorate in Deaf Ed. Carol Rouly had studied at Lamar, but her commitment to signing ran even deeper.

In Julie's living room, Carol tried to establish a mother-to-mother connection by mentioning that her own daughter, 24-year-old Tracy, is profoundly deaf -- as deaf as it is possible to be.

"Does she speak?" Julie asked.
"No," said Carol. And she knew, immediately, that she'd lost Julie.
Julie had grown used to defending herself against Beaumont's true-believing signers. At Lamar, she'd peppered the Ph.D.s with questions, and stuck to her guns even as they warned her how often the oral method fails; on the other hand, they promised, signing practically guaranteed that Ashley would acquire language before she grew out of the "critical period" when it's easiest for the brain to absorb words.

After the initial meeting, Carol maneuvered to have Julie assigned to someone else in the Co-op; she didn't want to work with a mother so dead-set against sign. But Carol drew the assignment anyway. Julie and Ashley were hers.

At first, Carol didn't push sign; she sensed that a hard sell wouldn't work. On some visits, she talked to Julie about the extraordinary problems of raising a deaf child -- discipline, communication, other kids' acceptance, a parent's neglecting siblings who can hear. Some days, Carol and Julie just talked about their lives. They slowly grew to be friends; often, they ended up crying together.

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